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IU research team aims to save the lives of migrating birds

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Posted at 5:17 PM, Apr 22, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-23 10:51:54-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Spring is here and millions of birds are returning to Central Indiana after spending the winter in warmer climates.

But these warblers, sparrows and other birds face many threats to their survival, one of the deadliest is made by man.

Each year in cities in Indiana and everywhere, experts say hundreds of millions of migrating birds fly into buildings and die.

"Something happens, the birds startle. They fly from the trees and they fly towards what they perceive to be open space and it's not," said Victoria Schmalhofer, assistant director of the Center for Earth & Environmental Science at Indiana University Indianapolis.

Professor Victoria Schmalhofer is counting birds that die on Indiana University Indianapolis's Downtown campus in hopes of finding the best ways to keep birds safe in cities everywhere.

"And so the birds will collide with this very, very highly reflective glass and potentially the end of that encounter will be a bird fatality."

Birds are drawn to the reflective glass that is typical on many buildings and skyscrapers, Schmalhofer said.

Schmalhofer and a team of about 50 students and volunteers found that 256 birds flew into 15 buildings on the Downtown Indianapolis campus last year.

Only about one-in-five birds survive after flying into a building, Schmalhofer's team learned.

While they are counting the number of birds that die, Schmalhofer said the point of the work is to find ways that humans can help birds stay alive.

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Last March, researchers discovered this oven bird after it flew into a building on the campus of Indiana University Indianapolis. The bird was dazed, but survived and flew away after several hours, Professor Victoria Schmalhofer said.

"I developed the project in order to systematically look at certain buildings, survey them very regularly and find out how often birds were actually colliding with campus buildings," Schmalhofer said.

Bird strikes are a problem across the U.S.

In Chicago on one night last October, Cornell University reported that nearly 1,000 birds died after flying into a single building, the McCormick Place, on the city's Lake Michigan shoreline.

According to Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, ornithologists estimate that more than 600 million birds die every year in the United States and Canada from strikes with buildings.

Andrew Hudnut, an IU student working with Schmalhofer on the project, said he hopes this research will point to simple changes that can improve life on campus for humans and birds.

"Birds, they're very important because they can sort of serve as like an indicator for what's going on in the environment," Hudnut said. "Lots of birds every year die from colliding with windows. If we can play a role in collecting data and try to mitigate those impacts, than this project is great for that."

Birds eat a lot of bugs, which Schmalhofer said helps keep the bug population in check. They disperse seeds far away from the parent plant.

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Professor Victoria Schmalhofer stands in front of a highly reflective window on Indiana University Indianapolis's Downtown campus.

"Farmers benefit tremendously because the birds are eating the insects that might otherwise eat their crops," Schmalhofer said. "We're very dependent on birds to do a lot of these environmental services, things that nature provides for us sort of free of charge."

And just like the "canary in the coal mine," Schmalhofer said birds provide early warning signs to pollutants, toxins and other problems in our world.

"If it's disadvantageous to birds in the long run, it's going to be disadvantageous to us," she said. "By taking care of birds and maintaining healthy bird populations, you pretty much take care of most of the major environmental problems that could potentially be affecting us as well."

Professor Victoria Schmalhofersaid banners like this could be used to the windows on buildings her study shows to have the most bird strikes.

Schmalhofer said it's still to early to draw any conclusions from the study, but Cornell and others who have long been researching the topic recommend some easy changes:

Decals or screens. Special decals and screens placed on windows can make reflective glass appear more obvious to flying birds.

Turn off lights. Many bird species migrate at night and become confused by lights in windows. The Amos Butler Audubon Society urges businesses and homeowners to turn off lights that shine through windows in the spring and fall.

Public art or banners. Schmalhofer said banners and murals may be used to decorate the glass on buildings where bird strikes are a continuing problem.

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at or on X/Twitter: @vicryc.