FALL 2015

For the Love of Birds: Dedicated PhD Students Turn Their Desire to Reduce Bird Deaths Caused by Window Collisions Into a Research Project

by Lisa M. Dellwo

Anyone who lives in a wooded neighborhood is familiar with the problem of birds flying into windows. This most likely happens because the birds see the forested landscape reflected in the glass. Like many dedicated birders, Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela was concerned about this issue, particularly on the Duke campus where she is a PhD student studying tropical bird ecology.

She was concerned enough to urge Duke administration to address the problem in building construction and renovation. But like any good scientist, she decided that collecting data would strengthen her case.

Her PhD work involves bird conservation in her native Colombia. “I normally work with live birds,” she says. But Ocampo-Peñuela became known as the person to contact on campus when a bird was found dead next to a building.

“People started bringing dead birds to my office,” she says. Her research started with an Excel spreadsheet in which she logged each victim’s species and location. But logging serendipitous finds was not sufficiently rigorous scientifically. So in 2013, she approached Nicholas School instructor Nicolette Cagle about enlisting master’s students in a data collection effort.

Since that time, according to Cagle, 30 master’s students and a handful of undergraduates and Duke employees were involved in data collection for a project, spearheaded by Ocampo-Peñuela, involving bird collisions on campus. Three Master of Environment Management (MEM) students, Charlene Wu, Erika Zambello, and Thomas Wittig, are coauthoring a journal article with Cagle, Ocampo- Peñuela, and Duke PhD student Scott Winton that will address the observed patterns of bird-window collisions.

This is not Ocampo-Peñuela’s first involvement in research on bird-window collisions. As an undergraduate ecology major at Ponticia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, she began documenting bird mortality on campus after an administrator told her about deaths associated with window collisions. The work was published in a Colombian ornithology journal the year after she graduated.

Winton signed onto the project at about the time as Cagle. But Winton decided to address the problem through another route.

Winton was the Nicholas School’s Environmental Science and Policy representative on the Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC). In 2015, he introduced a resolution to the council asking Duke administration to “consider bird collision mitigation during the design and planning process of all future campus buildings.” In addition, the resolution asked Duke to consider retrofitting existing buildings and to become a leader in a bird-friendly campus movement.

The resolution was based on the results of more than a year of data collection on campus in which 168 bird deaths were documented, either in the formal data collection project involving seven campus buildings or in a subsidiary project in which anyone could report a death anywhere on campus using the iNaturalist app.

It passed unanimously. According to Winton, any resolution passed by GPSC is forwarded to high campus administrators and members of the university’s Board of Trustees.

168 bird deaths might not sound like an actionable problem, but the big picture is that building collisions are second only to feral and free-ranging pet cats as a human-related source for bird mortality in the United States. A recent scientific paper states that between 265 and 988 million birds are killed annually by collisions with buildings in the U.S.

“Nationwide, buildings kill many hundreds of millions of birds each year—a major source of their mortality. And they need not: this is something where simple engineering can fix the problem,” says Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology in the Nicholas School and Ocampo-Peñuela’s advisor. “I’m delighted that, as part of its commitment to being green, Duke has chosen to embrace these simple solutions.”

The problem was most recently in the news when the Minnesota Vikings revealed the plans for a stunning new football stadium, to be constructed along the migratory corridor of the Mississippi River, complete with walls of bird-unfriendly glass. In January, the team declined to redesign the stadium using fritted glass, which has a pattern that makes the glass more visible to birds.

On the Duke campus, you can see fritted glass on the recently built Penn Pavilion and on the street sides of the Nicholas School’s new Environment Hall, and those airy buildings— according to the surveys—have very few bird collisions associated with them.

Where you would not find fritted glass, until recently, is on the Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences (CIEMAS), a 322,000-square-foot LEED-certified complex completed in 2004. In surveys conducted from Spring 2014 through Spring 2015, 72 percent of the bird deaths documented on campus (81) were attributed to this building.

Now, perhaps, that rate will decline. John Noonan, vice president for facilities management at Duke, reports that toward the end of the summer, a patterned film had been applied to four towers and the outward-facing bridge facades at CIEMAS. The printed dots on the film reduce reflectivity and visually breaks up the glass expanse for birds in flight while still maintaining 98 percent clear viewing for the humans inside the building.

“The solution came from a collaborative review of the study from the Nicholas School research team and Facilities Management architectural and engineering staff,” Noonan says.

Duke’s Fall 2014 data collection effort became part of a larger project in which researchers on 40 campuses across the country gathered bird-window collision data during fall bird migration. Principal investigator Stephen B. Hager of Augustana College is still analyzing data that he hopes will reveal whether the amount of window space in a building is a factor in bird strikes, as well as whether being surrounded by green space rather than other buildings is a quantifiable factor.

That project was conducted under the umbrella of the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN), an organization devoted to involving undergraduate students in collaborative research projects. With EREN, Ocampo-Peñuela says, “You pitch an idea that needs replicates and access to a network of researchers.” In May, she pitched an idea for a study comparing bird deaths associated with LEED-certfied buildings to non-LEED buildings, which was approved and then got under way this fall.

“LEED buildings are designed for energy efficiency, views and lighting,” she says. “All of these speak to more windows, more glass.”

MEM student Erika Zambello, with Ocampo-Peñuela’s help, took the lead in gathering data across 15 campuses.

“Soon, we will be able to elucidate if green buildings are more dangerous to birds, and hopefully push for a more strict, bird-friendly protocol to certified buildings, contributing to ongoing work by the American Bird Conservancy,” says Ocampo-Peñuela.


Lisa M. Dellwo is a writer specializing in nature, environment, science, and foodways, based in Down East Maine. Her previous article for Dukenvironment was a profile of Duke Ph.D.s Andrew Gronewold and Craig Stow, focusing on their Great Lakes research.