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Migratory Birds Slamming into Loyola University's Glass Buildings

By Benjamin Woodard | November 19, 2014 5:35am
 Loyola University's large glass buildings pose a risk for migratory birds, according to researchers.
Dead Birds at Loyola
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ROGERS PARK — Loyola University's glass architecture might be beautiful, but it poses a deadly risk for the flocks of migratory birds passing through the city, researchers say.

Assistant professor and ecologist Reuben Keller, a native of Australia, first noticed dead birds on campus when he began teaching at Loyola in 2011.

Dozens of them on any given day would be littered on the ground in front of the large glass windows favored by the university's architects.

The birds — warblers, sparrows, thrushes, woodpeckers, even a kingfisher — had died or been severely injured after colliding with the transparent, and sometimes reflective, glass while migrating to and from Canada and Central America.

 Students Kema Malki, 21, (l.) and Nikhil Malekal, 21,  stand with assistant professor Reuben Keller in front of a glass building at Loyola University where many migratory birds have died.
Students Kema Malki, 21, (l.) and Nikhil Malekal, 21,  stand with assistant professor Reuben Keller in front of a glass building at Loyola University where many migratory birds have died.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

Ben Woodard says blinds can work, if a building has any:

"They do that trip twice a year," said Keller, while walking this week on Loyola's lake shore campus, which has seen a flurry of new construction projects since he started teaching there. "It's kind of awesome to think of these tiny little birds doing it, and then all the more sad they get caught up here."

Keller said the birds typically fly up and down the shoreline of Lake Michigan and look for shelter at night and in the early morning. The birds, many of them not much larger than the size of a thumb, see desks and chairs — possible places to rest and feed — through the glass of a lit-up building.

The problem is, the birds don't perceive the glass.

"It's a beautiful building," Keller said, standing in front of a new athletic department addition on campus. "It's lit up at night, and you can see right through. It's like there's no glass."

Keller said he decided to bring the problem to his environmental studies students, specifically the honors class entitled "Science and Society."

Before and after dawn since the spring 2012 migratory period his students walk the perimeter of the campus' buildings looking for birds. Any birds found would be bagged, identified and placed in a freezer in their lab.

The first year, they found 435 birds.

One of the most problematic sites was the university's Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons, built directly on the lake and known for its expansive glass facade.

But the students have had some success stemming the bird collisions after bringing the problem to the attention of university officials.

The automated blinds at the Information Commons, intended to shield students from the rising or setting sun, were reprogrammed to close at night and before sunrise.

The number of collisions there dropped dramatically, data shows. In 2013, the group recorded 224 dead birds on campus.

Senior Kema Malki, 21, said she began to notice the problem at times that she wasn't making the rounds in the early morning for Keller's class.

"There was one day last semester, I don't know what was wrong with the blinds, but I was sitting in the [Information Commons], and I just happen to look over and I saw a row of dead birds," she said. "So I was standing out there shoveling them into a pile."

This year, the group recorded 70 dead birds in the spring, but 334 in the fall migration period, through Oct. 28, according to the data.

Many of those deaths can be attributed to the 30-foot-high windows of the newly constructed Norville Athletic Center, Keller said.

"These nine beautiful windows," he said. "It's really a nice piece of architecture."

Senior Nikhil Malekal, 21, said his class also had been working with school administrators to find a solution.

The windows don't have blinds, but other buildings Downtown have had success with installing netting in front of their windows during migration season. The Chicago offices of the FBI, 2111 W. Roosevelt Road, in the Illinois Medical District has used the netting.

Other buildings have put in a film over the window that works like a one-way mirror. The film is similar to what the CTA uses for ads on its buses and trains and helps the birds avoid the glass.

Keller said preventing the collisions can be costly: It would cost about $15,000 to $25,000 to put film on the windows at the Norville athletic center. 

Steven Christensen, a Loyola spokesman, said the university was waiting for a formal report from Keller's group detailing collision data and potential solutions before making changes to the buildings.

He said Loyola and the group would then "work together to determine how to proceed."

Keller said he plans to submit a report in the next few months.

Loyola isn't the only university causing issues for migratory birds, said Annette Prince, manager of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors program. Dead birds also have been found at the foot of buildings on the campuses of Northeastern Illinois, DePaul and Northwestern universities.

Of course, any large building with a lot of windows is problematic.

"It’s a migratory pathway they’ve used for hundreds of thousands of years before buildings were here," she said of the birds' journey through Chicago.

Prince helped Keller and his class start their program at Loyola, but she cautions that the group is only finding a fraction of the birds injured or killed there because many small birds that die aren't found or are scavenged by predators.

Back in Keller's lab at Loyola's new Institute of Environmental Sustainability, the professor opened a freezer full of the bird specimens collected in the last few months. The birds will be donated to the Field Museum.

Keller pulled a handful of the bagged birds from the freezer and spread them across a countertop. He remarked on the birds' colored feathers of yellow, green and red.

"It's really sad they end up here like this," he said.

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