In Maine, “Hope is the thing with feathers!”
Updated: Jan 25
Cady Netland, Conservation Communications Fellow, explains what bird collisions are, how they are connected to Maine’s resilience, and what our community is doing to help.
When I applied to the AmeriCorps, I hoped I would find a placement where I could work with an environmental nonprofit and planned on incorporating my love for birds into my life outside of work. I never imagined I would be matched up with a placement that so perfectly matched my goals for service, interests, and educational background. My official title is the Conservation Communications Fellow for Maine Audubon and the Portland Society for Architecture (PSA) working on their combined-effort project called Bird Safe Portland. This project is focused on discovering the breadth of bird collisions in Portland and utilizing community outreach, education and architectural solutions to reduce the frequency and severity of these collisions.
So, what are bird collisions? There is a widespread misconception that bird collisions are when birds fly into tall buildings because they interrupt their flight paths in the sky. However, we now know that fewer than 1% of bird collisions occur at high-rise buildings, and that glass is actually the cause of collisions. Birds and humans share the inability to see glass, but unlike humans, birds haven’t evolved the ability to recognize glass by visual cues around it. Both transparent and reflective glass often show a continuation of habitat to birds, which causes them to fly into it. Nation-wide research has shown that these collisions kill up to 1 billion birds each year in the United States alone. Although Audubon, American Bird Conservancy and many local nonprofits are working to solve this problem, it has remained an issue most people are generally uninformed about. This is often because many people don’t directly witness bird collisions or notice its impact for various reasons and therefore assume it is an uncommon occurrence. Sometimes injured birds fly away from the place of impact, often dying of their injuries elsewhere. Other times collision victims fall under bushes or leaf piles and are hidden. Even more frequently, groundskeepers and predators clear away bird carcasses quickly after impact.
The other reason many people are uninformed about bird collisions is that they don’t at first see how it affects them. What do birds have to do with community, or resilience? As a conservationist, I see community not just as humans sharing a space, but as everything that makes a space a living, breathing thing. Birds are an important part of this living community. Here in Maine we can see this in the Ruby-throated Hummingbird who pollinates our flowers, the American Goldfinch who relocates native seeds in flight, the Northern Flicker who aerates our soil in its search for delicious ants and, of course, our State bird the Black-capped Chickadee who serves as a natural pest-controller, amongst many others! Aside from these direct ecosystem services, birds have cultural and historic value in Maine. In many of Maine’s indigenous tribes, birds are seen as sovereign and as connections to the spiritual world. They are common characters in the traditional stories of the Wabanaki, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot tribes. Furthermore, birds serve as cultural icons of Maine, with the Common Loon and Black-capped Chickadee representing our state in our ever-growing tourism industry. Above all, birds are ubiquitous, ever-present, and accessible. They can be seen or heard everywhere you go. Young, old, able, disabled, people can find and enjoy the presence of birds around them. Because of this, they serve as a link that connects and strengthens our community across all identities as a whole. When birds are experiencing huge losses like those from collisions, our entire community suffers.
The good news is progress is being made! From advocating for collision-reducing legislation and evaluating new glass products to educating architects, developers, and homeowners, work is being done in the world on behalf of our feathered friends. There are so many solutions, old and new, to offer to people. One of my personal favorite design solutions, glass block windows (Picture 1), was actually popularized back in the 1930s-40s! I also love the option to paint windows (Picture 2), giving people the chance to uniquely and creatively express themselves at their homes or businesses.
Picture 1: Glass Block Window (Frank Worthley)
Picture 2: Bird painted window (Pinterest)
This progress is being made in our own community here in Portland. Bird Safe has organized a group of volunteers during the Fall and Spring migrations since 2020 to walk a set route in Portland looking for evidence of bird collisions. My first service task was to analyze the data that has been collected by these volunteer walks since Fall 2020. This involved first going through every collision photo and ensuring the species identifications were accurate and as specific as possible. Sometimes gender and age specifications are extremely difficult to make, especially from limited photos of dead birds. However, I did my best and was able to glean some important information on the general age and sex ratios of our collision victims. Although sex appears to be inconsequential, a large portion of our recorded collisions were juveniles. This can have negative implications for the future survivability of a species. After checking the IDs, I created a full data analysis of which species and Latin families were represented in the data per season and which behavioral characteristics were most frequent in collision victims. This is helpful to understanding what types of birds are suffering the highest losses from collisions, and to eventually determining ways to protect them. For example, the majority of collisions recorded were birds that rely on trees as habitat. Knowing this, we can guess that avoiding planting native trees near buildings could potentially contribute to reducing collisions. My next project was summarizing this data into a consumable 1-2 page summary. We are hoping to utilize this summary in our outreach to local businesses, architectural firms and schools as well in our development of an ordinance to present to the City of Portland.
The Bird Safe project is incredibly multifaceted and works on achieving goals in science, architecture, law, policy and education all at once. One of these educational goals is to bring Bird Safe to the curricula of young students, instilling a knowledge about and care for the plights of birds from an early age. I was able to witness the fruits of this labor at Yarmouth Elementary School, where one of our team members Sonya Kahlenberg (conservationist and Yarmouth Elementary Mom extraordinaire!) has been developing and running a Bird Safe section in the fourth grader’s STEAM curriculum. You can learn more about this project from this blog article written by Maine Audubon’s Communication and Marketing Director Melissa Kim. At the culmination of the course, the students got together to paint the windows (Picture 3 ) at the front of the school to protect nearby birds from potential collisions. Not only were their drawings sweet and effective, but I walked away feeling full of optimism for the future generations of birds that will have these kids as their valiant voices. Our community is not only learning that a healthy population of birds is critical to our resiliency, we are also learning what we can do to help. And so can you! Together we can prove that, at least here in Portland, Hope truly is a thing with feathers!
Picture 3: A window painted by students at Yarmouth Elementary School
To learn more about bird collisions and what you can do to help, go to https://abcbirds.org/glass-collisions/
To keep updated with the work of Bird Safe Maine, visit https://maineaudubon.org/advocacy/birdsafe/
Cady grew up in the North Shore of Massachusetts and recently earned her B.S. in Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology with a minor in Spanish at UC Davis. Within her program, she developed and cultivated a passion for ornithology, environmental law and the work of NGOs. She also was a devoted birdwatcher, chamber choir member, research intern and foster mom for 11 different rescue dogs. From assisting in caretaking for elephants at the Elephant Conservation Center in Luang Prabang, Thailand to helping construct a turtle hatchery in Camaronal National Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica, Cady has loved her experiences traveling and having a direct impact on conservation efforts around the world. With a deep family history in and connection to Maine, she is thrilled to be bringing her passions and skills to a community she feels inherently at home in. She is particularly excited to continue to learn, discover ways to inspire her new community about positive conservation action and have a direct hand in protecting the birds she knows and loves from the threat of collision.