Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bird Safe Impressions

Expansive windows to view trees and sky draw occupants closer to the nature they love outside. 
But windows can draw birds to fly into the reflection of those landscapes in the glass. 

I went to a dinner for Audubon Minnesota this week, recognizing contributors to the last 10 years of their bird safe work: programs to prevent fatal bird-building collisions by selectively reducing night lighting and careful building design. I was there because about five years ago, I co-authored bird-safe guideline criteria for the B3 Minnesota Sustainable Buildings Guidelines.  But I was also there because I love birds, and by association, am fond of bird-people.

Page from Ascent, 2009
Artist's book
Dead Birds Count

In a presentation, Audubon Project Birdsafe Coordinator and bird-safe guideline co-author, Joanna Eckles gave the stats of the bird count study Audubon had conducted over the last decade, as volunteers made regular walks around Minneapolis and St. Paul in the early hours to inventory bird-building collision fatalities and injuries. Some of the volunteers had been walking these routes for over five years and collected 500 or more dead birds. Each bird is identified and the place and date found are recorded. This data is used for research and helps document the extent of the bird-building problem and reveal patterns across the years. Over the course of the program, over 4500 dead birds that collided with buildings have been collected by volunteers, ...who presumably love birds. How does that feel, I wonder, to go collecting the bodies? Are they still warm? The birds I've found by my house are days old and rotting, but to see a bird up close that recently expired, --is the awe at its beauty there, when the body is intact but the life has left?

How much effort should go into birdsafe design? How valuable is a bird? Birds are small, soft, and fleeting. Buildings are massive, solid, and designed to last decades. The concerns of buildings tend to win. But I loved birds before I loved buildings and it pains me to be practical on this topic. There are practical ways to prevent collisions - that's what the guidelines are about, but sometimes costs or design preferences are in tension with the impact on bird life.

Bird Life

Birds are a muse for me. Many of my artist's books and associated poems reference birds and their bodies: bird beaks, bird feet, feathers, bird bellies. My first public artwork, Children's Nest Egg, was a giant nest and referenced birds in its engraved text. Perhaps this bird attraction started in junior high school art class where the best images we had to draw or paint from were Audubon magazines. I studied the beaks, the eyes, and the curved bird feet gripping a twig. The photos were closer than I could get to real birds and this personalized them for me - faces and postures I could relate to. I was a nature-loving girl.

But the most potent study of a bird and its body I've experienced happened later as part of a bird-building encounter. I was in architecture school, in the library among the dark green hardbound archives of black and white architecture magazines with smooth pages illustrating hard edged modernist buildings. There, along the shelves I saw a small yellow bird. It had probably come in one of the tall slit windows that opened in those days and didn't have screens. I knew I had to get the bird out. I moved toward it and it hopped further down the aisle. Again I moved closer and it hopped further. Then I moved more slowly and it stood still while I reached out to wrap my hand around its belly. It felt warm and its heart was beating rapidly. I never knew a bird's body held so much life inside. I carried it toward a window, stepping evenly like I was balancing tea cups. Then I extended my arm outside and opened my hand. The bird flew away.

Recollections of my encounters with birds are adapted from a collection of bird-writings in process.

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