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Saving birds, one window at a time

Brendon Samuels sees through the eyes of a bird in flight

Feature

Navigating Western’s campus, biology PhD candidate Brendon Samuels looks beyond the buildings, walkways and greenery; he sees it through the eyes of a bird in flight. 

Take windows, for example. To a human, the International and Graduate Affairs Building is easy to see—an attention-getting modernistic box made mostly of reflective glass. For birds flying between the Thames River and nearby woods, it might as well be invisible. 

A few years ago, Samuels routinely collected birds that had died there after hitting windows they couldn’t see. He estimated at the time that the building killed 150 birds a year. “They just don’t understand what glass is. They never really encountered a reflection before in nature. Often their first encounter is a lethal one,” Samuels says.

In fact, collisions with windows are estimated to kill more than a billion birds every year in North America and are one of the most common human-made causes of bird deaths.

For his PhD, Samuels studies pre-collision behaviour and tested how birds perceive windows, and how to create the most effective window treatments to make windows visible to them.

It turns out the bird-shaped stickers many people place on windows to make them visible don’t really do much. “What we find is that if you put one or two stickers up on your window, a bird is just going to fly around the stickers and hit the glass,” he says.

On the other hand, patterns with spaces of no more than five centimetres will signal to even the smallest bird that there is no space to fit through.

Over the past few years, Samuels has worked with the university to identify problem buildings and treat the windows with coatings the birds can see and avoid.

He says this has drastically reduced bird strikes, and the university has committed to making all new buildings bird-safe and is working towards retrofitting existing windows with the protective film.

It may be surprising that the grids of pencil-sized white dots make a difference. From a distance, it’s difficult for human eyes to detect them, and even up close they don’t stand out. But for birds the dots make all the difference.

Working with the City of London, Samuels is advocating for development planning bylaws to require bird-safe building design. And he has been working with the non-profit organization FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) Canada to advocate for Bill 145, a policy that would incorporate bird-safe building design into the Ontario Building Code.

“Like a lot of issues in conservation, I actually think we have enough knowledge. We know what the solutions are. At least enough so we can take decisive action through policy and systems change to achieve the goals of conservation,” Samuels says.