The Winding Path of Advocating for Bird Friendly Buildings

Bird friendly retrofit of Alumni Hall bike storage shelter at Western University. Photo: Brendon Samuels

By Brendon Samuels

If you follow FLAP and are reading this, then you probably care about conserving birds in your community. Unfortunately, there are a lot of buildings already out there, and others still being constructed, that pose a great risk of birds colliding with windows. Until existing building windows are retrofitted, or new buildings are designed to be safe for birds, more birds will preventably be killed. Perhaps you’ve wondered, what can a single person like you or me do about an existing problem building, or construction of a new building with windows that endanger birds? It may surprise you to know that there is quite a bit that you can do– and I hope what has been accomplished at my university can serve as an example of that.

I’m currently a PhD candidate at Western University, in London, Ontario where I study bird-window collisions. As a result of work and prodding by myself and others, over the last few years, Western has made significant progress towards reducing the risk of bird-window collisions on its campus. The campus is situated between an environmentally significant area and a major river, and provides habitat for birds year-round and as well as for stopovers during migrations. As part of a project I undertook for my PhD studies, I began casual monitoring for bird collisions at over 40 buildings on campus in 2019. Then, in 2020-2021, I narrowed the scope to include just 6 buildings in a smaller geographic area, with intensive surveys carried out each day during spring and fall. Meanwhile, citizen science reports of collisions continued to be submitted to iNaturalist (or to me via email) from across campus by members of the public. Perhaps this awareness came from my extensive posting on social media, or from information I left on business cards taped to suspected high-risk windows. Sometimes the reports came from building maintenance staff who I had spoken with earlier.

A remarkable aspect of this initiative has been its positive reception from the University’s community and administration. My graduate student society and numerous faculty members and staff co-signed a petition urging the University to take a look at this problem. Western subsequently retrofitted windows on 5 campus buildings that monitoring data suggested posed a high risk of bird collisions, and also incorporated bird friendly design into the construction of 3 new buildings. Following separate outreach efforts, Western’s affiliate colleges Huron and King’s further retrofitted windows on 4 of their buildings. Fortunately, these institutions have agreed to take bird friendly design into consideration for future building construction. Bird friendly design is now promoted as part of the University’s sustainability portfolio, featured in its alumni newsletter and Green Campus Tours.

What can be learned from these successes at Western? Motivating any post-secondary institution to invest in measures to protect birds may seem like a daunting task. It helps if you can provide empirical evidence and data from building monitoring to support your case and show them specifically where the problem is. or iNaturalist can be useful tools for collecting and sharing data. You’ll want to guide your contact(s) down a straightforward path by suggesting a course of action, like pointing to examples of bird friendly retrofit materials or the free-to-read CSA A460:19 bird friendly building design standard. Universities typically follow operating budgets and procurement policies that are set in advance, so expect funding and logistics for retrofits to take awhile. For planned new buildings, it is imperative that bird friendly design is discussed as early as possible, preferably before construction begins. If you can visit the construction site, try asking a worker for information about who is in charge, or look out for details on posted notices.

There is no silver bullet, no cookie-cutter formula for advocating successfully to prevent bird collisions. Much depends on the context – whether it’s an existing or new building, the skills and available time of the person doing the outreach, the priorities of the audience who receives it, and support from the community, which could include students, employees, external groups, politicians, or the general public. No matter who you are dealing with, an important part of advocating for change is to foster trust and build relationships with the people you are trying to convince to get on your side.

At post-secondary campuses, decisions to approve building retrofits are typically made by administration at the institution’s facilities management division, but you may find support from others in campus operations, teaching or research. I suggest starting off by contacting staff near the bottom of whatever hierarchy exists in the institutional office you need to reach, and working your way up. If you aren’t sure where to begin, try asking around in your department, or approach building maintenance staff and request contact information for their manager. If you are looking at a privately owned building that isn’t on an academic campus, the process for finding out who to talk to can be quite similar. Construction of large new buildings typically can’t proceed until the developer has received approval from the municipal government on its site plan, which includes detailed designs. You may find luck by reaching out to the part of the municipal government that approves new site plans, and providing feedback to suggest that bird friendly design should be used.

How you share your message about addressing bird collisions is up to you, but here are some general tips. When making your pitch, either in correspondence or conversation with staff or administrators, try to highlight values that you might share in common, like protecting the environment for future generations, or elevating the reputation of the institution as a leader in sustainability. Be persistent, but always be polite. Making changes happen can take a frustratingly long time and require sustained effort. Don’t be shy about sending a followup email if you don’t receive a response after a few weeks. Even if things don’t go your way at first, remember that the people responsible for making changes happen are not working against you, and don’t want birds to be harmed any more than you do – they are probably just less informed and need to balance other priorities. When you manage to strike up a conversation with the right audience, rooted in compassion and a desire to help, a little education can go a long way.

Author Biography

Brendon Samuels is a PhD student in the Department of Biology at Western University. Brendon works at the Advanced Facility for Avian Research and studies the relationship between bird vision and window collision risk. Brendon leads a Bird Safe Campus team for Western and is involved with municipal efforts in the City of London to adopt bird-friendly programs.