RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Modern architecture's love affair with tall, glass buildings is taking a toll. Every year, millions of birds crash into glass windows. These often-fatal collisions may seem an intractable problem, but some architects and scientists are trying to find a solution. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this morning's story on the search for bird-friendly buildings.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: In Manhattan's Meatpacking District, there used to be more dead birds than live ones. But now, the High Line starts here. It's an old, elevated rail line that's been planted with trees and shrubs and flowers.
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JOYCE: Walkers, joggers, street musicians flock here. And birds - that's what brings architect Guy Maxwell here.
GUY MAXWELL: I have to imagine that during migration, this is going to be pretty attractive as a stopover.
JOYCE: Maxwell is a soft-spoken guy in his 40s, with salt-and-pepper black hair. He designs multimillion-dollar buildings, and he also builds roosts for owls in his own backyard. He loves the High Line, but he says it's also a trap.
MAXWELL: It's a fantastic park, but it probably does pose some form of hazard because it will draw birds in, and bring them into these areas that are exposed to a lot of glass.
JOYCE: Glass-walled buildings surround us.
Here's one, right in front of us. I see a gigantic building, with lots of big glass.
MAXWELL: Yeah, that's one of our buildings.
JOYCE: You designed that building?
MAXWELL: That's the Standard Hotel.
JOYCE: The High Line runs right underneath it. When a bird looks at that, it sees trees and clouds reflected in the glass, as if it can fly right through it.
MAXWELL: It's really - the size of glass, and reflected vegetation, are the two factors which really result in collisions.
JOYCE: Buildings like this, all over the world, are killing birds. Maxwell says luckily, this hotel has blinds and curtains in the windows. These break up the reflections. But there are other hazards here. Maxwell points out a brick high-rise. There's a corner office, with a big window that wraps from one side of the building around the corner, and along the adjacent side.
MAXWELL: So you can see all the way through both pieces of glass. The bird is not seeing the glass as a barrier. And it's seeing all the way through to the other side, and then flies into the glass.
JOYCE: This is more than a personal passion for Maxwell. He's decided to design bird-friendly buildings for his architectural firm in Manhattan, called Ennead.
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JOYCE: The firm occupies an old warehouse. The windows have chicken wire in them, for safety. But it turns out, that's a pretty good bird deterrent. The birds can see the wire. But people don't want chicken-wire glass now. So Maxwell is looking for glass that birds can see but also, looks good to people. He's got a drawer-full of candidates.
MAXWELL: Ultimately, what we are after here is breaking up the reflection.
JOYCE: That can be stripes, dots, patterns.
MAXWELL: I have a big question about color. How do birds see color? Is there one color that they see more than others? Could I put, you know, a couple of spots of red on a building, and it's like a big stop sign? Who knows.
JOYCE: Biologists and architects have to follow their hunches, and test ideas on real birds when they can. One thing that does seem to work is a frit. A frit is a length of pencil-thin ceramic, embedded in or on glass. The pattern deters birds if it's laid in rows no wider than 2 inches apart horizontally, or 4 inches apart vertically. But frits have issues.
MAXWELL: Vertical lines, for a lot people - makes them feel like they're in prison. (LAUGHTER) Behind bars.
JOYCE: But getting architects to cover their buildings in patterns, is hard. Just ask Michael Mesure.
MICHAEL MESURE: Anything that has been recommended, they have shunned away from because aesthetics is key for corporations.
JOYCE: Mesure's experience is mostly in Toronto, where he runs a group called FLAP, the Fatal Light Awareness Program. In the 1990s, they focused on getting big buildings to turn out the lights at night because they attract migrating birds.
MESURE: I had to find out myself, if this was really happening. And sure enough, I got up bright and early one morning; went down into the city, and was finding birds on the sidewalk.
JOYCE: Dead birds - lots of them. Toronto sits next to Lake Ontario, a hotspot for migrating birds. But Mesure discovered that daytime reflections are worse than lights at night. So his group worked with Toronto officials to require bird-friendly designs for new buildings. Old buildings are not included. So FLAP is helping an environmental group, Ecojustice, to sue building owners to make them retrofit their buildings. The lawsuit claims that reflected light is a contaminant.
MESURE: Once daylight is reflected off of a surface, it's reflected in the form of radiation.
JOYCE: Under Canadian law, radiation is listed as a contaminant that can harm animals. Mesure acknowledges that this argument is a bit of a stretch. But other cities are voluntarily adopting guidelines for bird-friendly buildings - San Francisco, for example. Some, like New York, encourage building owners to turn off their lights at night. But what bird-friendly designs really work?
I'm back with New York architect Guy Maxwell. We're at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He's going to test some bird-friendly designs on a new science building that will go up here, next to a stream in the woods.
MAXWELL: Right in the middle of an area where we know there are going to be birds flying, so we had to do something about it.
JOYCE: The project got the backing of Marianne Begemann, Vassar's dean of strategic planning.
MARIANNE BEGEMANN: People understood that this was a way that we can try something new. And we also know, from experience, what some of our other buildings do. So people see dead birds outside of the existing buildings.
JOYCE: To prove her point, we go up into the building next to the construction site. Maxwell draws the curtains from a picture window.
MAXWELL: Hopefully, we won't find any birds on the other side of this glass, but it wouldn't surprise me if we did. Oh no, that looks like a vireo.
JOYCE: It's a dead songbird on the ledge outside. There's a ghostly outline of a feather on the glass, where it hit. The new Vassar building will use glass with various frit designs - those thin, ceramic bars. Outside one glass wall, they'll also build a row of tall, metal louvers - like vertical venetian blinds. That should break up tree reflections. And they'll try something called Ornilux Mikado glass. It's made in Germany. A chaotic pattern of lines is painted inside the glass. Mikado is the German name for the game of pick-up-sticks.
Outside of a trailer with Ornilux windows, you can make out a faint pattern. But from the inside...
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JOYCE: Well, so we're inside here, looking out through this Mikado Ornilux glass. And it is perfectly, absolutely invisible. That's amazing.
MAXWELL: Yeah, it's good. It's really good. Like I said, it's the closest thing we have right now, to that miracle glass.
JOYCE: Not a miracle, really; just physics and biology. The pattern is painted in a substance that reflects ultraviolet light. Birds see UV light well, and we don't. A lot of this is hit or miss. There's not much money around to do research, but Maxwell doesn't do this to make a lot of money.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility because you're an architect?
MAXWELL: Absolutely. The notion that this - that a building that we've built is causing harm, is really troubling to me.
JOYCE: Maxwell shows me his phone. It's got a library of bird songs. He finds the vireo, the bird whose body he found on the ledge today, and he plays its song.
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JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You'll find Chris's first story, and some photos of bird-friendly buildings and that miracle glass, on our website, npr.org.