Painting to preserve biodiversity

Painting to preserve biodiversity

By Samuel Gonzalez ’24

If you’re someone that enjoys watching and listening to birds, the following statistic may be as shocking as walking straight into a glass door: According to a 2014 study, collisions with windows could be responsible for up to one billion bird mortalities each year in the United States alone. Just to emphasize, that number could account for as much as a tenth of the national bird population each year. And these losses have been compounded with numerous hazards — habitat destruction, pesticide use, and others — to culminate in a net loss of 2.9 billion birds from the national population since 1970. The Center for Environmental Studies and Austin College Thinking Green (THINK) propose to reduce fatal bird-window collisions at the Idea Center’s north entrance with a mural that combines artistic depictions of birds with the research done to preserve their populations.

There are two main reasons for a bird to fly into a window. Birds may either see into the interior of a building and mistake the window for an opening into the building, or they may see reflections from the window and attempt to fly towards what they perceive as open sky or a row of trees. In either case, birds believe they can fly through the glass and hit the window at injurious and often fatal velocities. Although birds cannot interpret transparency or reflections, they are highly visual creatures that perceive light at far greater distances and resolutions than humans. When birds see openings between tree branches, for example, they can tell from a considerable distance whether or not their bodies can fit through the gaps. Similarly, when windows are dirty and smudged, they can perceive that no spaces between the smudges are large enough to fit through.

Research has shown that placing visible obstacles on windows in patterns at least two to four inches apart can significantly reduce the number of collisions because birds can tell that flying through is going to be a tight fit for their wingspan.

For several years, AC students and staff have brainstormed possible solutions, especially at the Idea Center, which has an exterior mostly comprised of reflective surfaces. However, solutions to problems like these are difficult because they must account for the problem itself as well as the relevant stakeholders. In this case, many want a solution, rightly so, that will not damage the windows, their framing, or the views they provide us.

To generate awareness on campus and help reduce needless bird deaths, a temporary mural depicting a flock of birds perched in trees now covers what has been considered one of the deadliest sets of windows on campus, the Idea Center’s north entrance. The project will recur before each migration season in the fall and spring, applied by THINK members, Environmental Studies student workers, and anyone else interested in contributing. Ultimately, the project intends to show that some collective action can yield opportunities to reduce our impact on vital aspects of our ecosystem.

The project is dedicated in honor of Austin College faculty member Dr. Kim Snipes, who passed away last year after battling with breast cancer. As an instructor of physiology, evolutionary biology, and ornithology, she led a career of fascination with birds as complex organisms and advocated for a world where humans could coexist with thriving biodiversity.

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