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Monday, May 27, 2024 — Houston, TX

Do more to make campus bird-friendly

By Kayla Yao     4/16/24 10:18pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked to the best of our ability and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

April is the month of many things: Beer Bike, a solar eclipse, the last day of classes and, perhaps lesser known, Earth Month. As Rice launches a series of Earth Month events, I would like to address our potential as a campus community to be more environmentally conscious, particularly in an effort to make this campus more friendly to birds.

During each night of migration season, 100,000 to 1 million birds cross Harris County. Migration season occurs twice a year: once from March to June, and again from August to November. Houston is located near the Gulf of Mexico, along a major migratory route. The high number of trees makes Rice’s campus almost a forest-like habitat migratory stopover point for an incredibly diverse range of bird species, providing birds a place to rest along their migratory journey. 

Without this biodiversity, we wouldn’t have our robins, our night herons, our hummingbirds and so many other species around campus. We wouldn’t even have the owls that are our mascot. We also wouldn’t have our extensive birding community, made up of students, faculty and other community members around Houston. A massive chunk of our culture comes from birds.

Yet this diversity is, unfortunately, reflected in the birds we find around campus that have died due to window collisions. Even though birds are skilled migrators, they are still very much accustomed to flying around in a world without windows. Birds see the area on the other side of a window as an extension of their habitat. They often do not notice that a window is a solid barrier and collide with the glass in an attempt to pass through. 

Each migration season, I collect and record bird-window collision fatalities across campus as part of my independent research project, in collaboration with Dr. Rafael Marcondes and the Texas Audubon’s Lights Out! Program. Some days we’re lucky to get no birds, but on other days, I spend multiple hours in lab processing their tiny bodies. Our data, in collaboration with the campus Facilities and Capital Planning Department and Office of Sustainability, has allowed for the approval and funding of a pilot program beginning in the summer to place a film of collision-deterring stickers on some windows to prevent future collisions. But the hope for a single sheet of stickers on a few window panels isn’t going to be enough.

Solutions to this shouldn’t be seen as unattainable. We already have bird-friendly window designs in some of the new buildings across campus, such as Kraft Hall, where the vertically-striped glass panels have successfully deterred collisions. However, these design standards are not consistently applied to other buildings, which is becoming an increasingly prominent problem as new buildings are built.

Progress is by no means easy. It is very disappointing to see that it will take significant time and money to prevent future bird mortalities on campus, and that it will likely take years before bird-friendly designs for buildings are adopted as an architectural standard. When I conduct surveys for these dead birds and go on day-long cycles of collecting one dead bird after another, I often wonder if the data we get will do anything at all given that this issue isn’t something most people are aware of or care about.

Even if a singular dead bird a day might seem insignificant, it would be depressing and embarrassing if this kept occurring now that we as a campus are aware of the issue. Furthermore, ask yourself this: Is a dead bird on the ground something you want to see during your daily walks to class or Chaus runs? Do you want to see others, especially the Housing & Dining staff, who do so much for us already, responsible for picking up decomposing creatures every day during spring and fall migration season? I would assume not.

The buildings that are considered bird-window collision magnets were designed without the knowledge that they would regularly kill birds. The current administration has the power to do more to address this issue and make Rice’s campus more bird-friendly, but this change can only happen if they know about it and are willing to work with us students. As members of the Rice community, I encourage you to recognize issues like this, however minor they might seem, and bring them to light and the attention of those around you.

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