Thumbnail image by Iliana Garner / North by Northwestern

As you walk by the Lakefill this spring, look up. You may see songbirds – swamp sparrows, common yellowthroats and dark eyed juncos – perched on trees. At night, flocks of these birds fly overhead on their migratory journey from South America to Canada’s boreal forests.

However, Vlad Nevirkovets, a Weinberg third-year and member of Northwestern University’s Associated Student Government’s Sustainability Committee, said the large windows that cover the Kellogg Global Hub, Frances Searle and Mudd Library are dangerous for these migratory birds.

“Birds don't realize that glass exists,” Nevirkovets said. “They just think that it’s a tree, the lake or the sky, and they fly into it.”

A bird’s eye view

Glass collisions kill around 1 billion birds nationwide annually, according to Christine Sheppard, director of American Bird Conservancy’s Glass Collisions Program.

A Cornell University study found Chicago was the most dangerous city for migrating birds due to the sheer number of birds that pass through the city, combined with urban light pollution. Some Chicago universities, such as the University of Chicago, have added pattern film, which makes windows more visible to birds, on windows to prevent bird collisions, according to Prince.

A student at North Park University in Chicago, Samantha Mendro, said her school added pattern films to its science building last year after she and her friend sent emails to the university encouraging administration to install the film after her zoology professor pointed out the large number of dead birds outside the three-story glass window.

“We definitely had to be persistent,” Mendro said. “But other than that, I was pleasantly surprised with [the university’s] willingness to work with us.”

Dr. Sheppard said Northwestern’s position near Lake Michigan makes the school an important spot for birds. Many birds will rest on campus before making their trek across the body of water, she said.

Activists hatch a plan

The Associated Student Government (ASG) Senate unanimously voted to pass a resolution last month calling for University administration to support its implementation of measures that would prevent bird collisions. Measures include allocating between $50,000 and $100,000 in funding from Northwestern to installing stripe pattern film on Mudd Hall’s large windows.

“It's a great direction...I think our school has the capacity to act,” said Weinberg first-year Santiago Elizondo, a senator who voted to pass the resolution but was unaffiliated with its creation. “If we're thinking about what our university can do to better support our world, this is definitely working toward one of our sustainable development goals.”

Additionally, Northwestern’s Faculty Senate recently passed a resolution on April 12 to install bird-friendly designs at Mudd Hall and the James L. Allen Center.

Winds of change

The University has previously invested in pattern films on the Frances Searle Building and the Kellogg Global Hub. Annette Prince, the director of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, said Frances Searle experienced a 90% reduction in bird strikes after stripe pattern film was installed in 2017, while Kellogg experienced a 73% reduction in bird strikes after dot pattern film was installed in 2018.

However, activists say Northwestern is not taking enough action to protect bird populations.

Every time Evanston resident Allison Sloan walked to her yoga class, she would see dead birds sprawled across the sidewalk. Now, Sloan is a member  of a volunteer organization Bird-Friendly Evanston, which works to make the city’s architecture safe for birds. In addition to advocating for bird-friendly legislation, volunteers wake up before sunrise to collect and identify birds that were injured or killed by windows on campus.

“While certain people at the University have tried, I feel like at this point from the administration, there certainly is more that needs to be done,” Sloan said.

Mudd Hall remains the third-highest building for bird strikes behind Kellogg and Ryan Fieldhouse, with anywhere from 54 to 141 injured or killed birds found around the library each year, Prince said.

Before the bird collision resolution passed, ASG sent out a petition to the student body calling to make Mudd Hall safe for birds. Nevirkovets said the petition received 835 individual signatures and about 20 signatures on behalf of organizations.

“I wasn't expecting there to be much of a pushback (to the resolution) because the student body was showing itself through that petition,” SESP first-year Louis Lee said, who co-authored the document. “I think that this was something that we expected.”

Data from the American Bird Conservatory shows that stripe pattern film is more effective at reducing bird collisions. However, McCormick first-year Lianne Kim, the resolution’s other co-author, said ASG’s Sustainability Committee is open to using either stripe or dot pattern film.

Lee says he anticipates the price to be the greatest barrier to installing film. He said while $100,000 is based on an overestimate of Mudd Hall’s window dimensions and the price of films, $70,000 is a more realistic price.

“I feel so encouraged that the students are taking a leadership role in this,” Sloan said. “They are the hope for the future for birds and every other non-human species on this planet that need to be protected right now.”