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.

THINK gives new students the breakdown on recycling at AC

By Samuel Gonzalez ’24 and John Huss ’24

Austin College first welcomed the class of 2027 on August 18, 2023, during move-in day for first-year students. Six students representing the student organization Austin College Thinking Green (THINK) stationed themselves in traditional residence halls — Baker, Clyce, Caruth and Dean Hall — to help reduce waste during the big move. THINK students have annually participated in first-year move-ins for over a decade to help spread awareness about living sustainably and encourage environmental consciousness beginning with the first day students arrive.

THINK volunteers were available in each dorm to provide general information about the mission of THINK and how to recycle at AC. Postcards with the do’s and don’ts of recycling on campus were also distributed to interested students.

In addition to spreading environmental awareness to new and returning students, THINK students provide support to AC’s invaluable housekeeping staff responsible for managing waste generated on move-in day. Volunteers spent the day directing the flow of cardboard to designated areas inside and outside of each building (often involving some heavy lifting) and assisting with break down so that housekeeping and facilities employees were able to concentrate their resources on general operations. Without the efforts of these staff members, AC’s recycling efforts would likely fall flat.

In total, THINK was able to help divert approximately 30 cubic yards of cardboard from the local landfill, roughly equivalent to nine truckloads or 1,500 lbs. Not bad for a Friday afternoon.

Recycling cardboard reduces the sulfur-dioxide emissions associated with the production of cardboard boxes, as well as the water and energy usage involved in producing cardboard from virgin materials. It can also help decrease the rate of logging required to supply cardboard manufacturing. According to the EPA, around 17.2 million tons of paper and cardboard are dumped in landfills each year. It’s a lot to unbox. By spreading awareness, students have the potential to reduce AC’s contribution to such environmental impacts.

GreenServe Native Plantings Draw Pollinators and People


A student enjoys GreenServe 2018’s on-campus project. Photo courtesy of Dr. Andrea Overbay.

GreenServe 2018 saw the expansion of native plantings on campus.  Sixteen volunteers filled an empty bed behind the Abell Library with six different native species selected with the help of Dr. George Diggs.  Drs. Peter Schulze, Keith Kisselle, and Mari Elise Ewing helped with the effort alongside Thinking Green Campus Awareness student co-leader Julian Coronado.  Even President Steven O’Day and First Lady Cece O’Day dug in and got their hands dirty!

President O’Day digs in. Photo courtesy of Dr. Andrea Overbay.

Native pollinator garden volunteers. Photo courtesy of Dr. Andrea Overbay.

Austin College President Emeritus Dr. Marjorie Hass and the Board of Trustees launched Austin College Thinking Green in 2011 to serve as an umbrella for all campus greening initiatives.  One of the outcomes was the formation of Thinking Green Campus Awareness, a committee of students who identify, organize, and publicize greening activities on campus.  Dr. Mari Elise Ewing, Professor of Environmental Studies, serves as the Director, and Katie Collins and Julian Coronado, both seniors, serve as the two student co-leaders for this academic year.  The mission for Thinking Green Campus Awareness is to increase campus participation in environmental responsibility and sustainable utilization of resources so that students will enrich their communities beyond Austin College.

Organized by Thinking Green Campus Awareness, GreenServe engages students from around campus in a morning of service focused on environmental responsibility and sustainability. Students volunteer at places like Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, Eisenhower State Park, both the Sherman and Pottsboro Community Gardens, and elsewhere throughout the Texoma community on projects such as trail maintenance, invasive species control, and habitat restoration.

A butterfly hovers over Purple Mistflower. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mari Elise Ewing.

GreenServe often includes an on-campus project.  For GreenServe 2016, the on-campus project consisted of expanding the native plants around the LEED Gold certified IDEA Center.  Ninety volunteers planted over 550 native plants paid for by the Student Sustainability Fund, created in 2011 by a vote of the entire student body and maintained through a five dollar annual student fee.  The project increased awareness of and interest in native plants on campus, which lead to GreenServe 2018’s pollinator garden project.

Over the summer, the native plants were in full bloom, drawing numerous butterfly and bee species.  Native plants and pollinators share an important symbiotic relationship, contributing to the health of their ecosystems.  Pollinators use the nectar and pollen they gather for food.  During foraging, they often carry pollen from one flower to another, which is a vital part of the reproductive cycle for many native plants.  Over the years, pollinator populations have declined through habitat loss, disease, and pesticide use.  Planting your own pollinator garden is a great way to help pollinator populations recover, and the pollinators are fun to watch!  More information can be found at the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s pollinators page.

The native plants draw lots of pollinators. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mari Elise Ewing.

A bee lights on some Mealy Sage. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mari Elise Ewing.

If you’d like to recreate our pollinator garden at home, here is the list of species we planted, all native to this area of North Texas:

Gregg Sage (Salvia greggii)

Mealy Sage (Salvia farinacea)

Mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum)

Coneflower (Echinacea species)

Rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala)

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis)


For photographs and more information about the plants listed above as well as other Texas natives, visit UT Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center webpage.

The pollinator garden in full bloom. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mari Elise Ewing.

GreenServe 2016: Highlighting Native Planting

Seven years ago, Austin College hosted our first GreenServe; an event created and proposed by a student in ENVS 135 (Introduction to Environmental Studies). This campus-wide opportunity attracts nearly 200 volunteers to community service projects focused on environmental responsibility, sustainability, and raising awareness for Thinking Green.

Volunteers for trash pick up at Denison Dam
Volunteers after habitat clean up at Denison Dam.

The event is co-sponsored, organized and implemented by two student led groups: Austin College Thinking Green (or Think) and the Service Station. By tradition, service projects last for three hours on a Saturday morning that falls on or near to Earth Day. In contrast to the three hours spent at each site, there are several weeks and countless hours that go into the planning of GreenServe in hopes that students will be provided with a wide range of opportunities from organizations that will inspire or establish a greater connection and meaning to long term environmental responsibility.

GreenServe Volunteers completing trail maintenance at Binkley Bike Trail.
GreenServe Volunteers completing trail maintenance at Binkley Bike Trail.

During the two weeks before GreenServe students, faculty, and staff, sign up for a project to which they would like to contribute. Some examples include:

  • Site maintenance and restoration work at Sneed Prairie
  • Promoting environmental awareness at Texoma Earth Day Festival
  • Native plantings on campus
  • Maintaining the Sherman Community Garden
  • Environmental Education to students in the RooBound program
  • Habitat clean up at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

Volunteers prepare to plant their section of plants at GreenServe.
Volunteers prepare to plant their section of plants at GreenServe.

This year, our 7th annual GreenServe, there was a special focus given to a site on our own Austin College campus. Over 80 GreenServe volunteers planted hundreds of native Texas flowering plants and grasses around the IDEA Center to support pollinators and encourage the adoption of native habitat restoration and education.

The plants were purchased with the Student Sustainability Fund.  As a result of a student referendum, five dollars of each student’s activities goes to the Student Sustainability Fund, whose expenditures are chosen by a student committee.

GreenServe volunteers at the native planting site.
GreenServe volunteers at the native planting site.

Next year’s GreenServe will be on Earth Day – April 22, 2017.