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News Every Day |

Saving migratory birds should be a Chicago priority

A dead bird is seen right outside the McCormick Place Lakeside Center on Oct. 6, 2023.

A dead bird outside the McCormick Place Lakeside Center on Oct. 6, 2023. Nearly 1,000 migratory birds struck the windows of the building the night before, according to The Field Museum.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

When collisions with Chicago's glass buildings kill large numbers of migrating birds, it's not just a tragedy: The land to which those birds were migrating are deprived of valuable creatures that devour pesky insects, distribute seeds, fertilize plants and provide other benefits.

Yet the Chicago Department of Planning and Development's preliminary guidelines for some new construction or major remodeling projects do not do enough to protect birds, as Kaitlin Washburn reported in the Chicago Sun-Times last week,

This flies in the face of good sense.

In 2019, Cornell's Lab of Ornithology ranked Chicago as the nation's most dangerous city for birds during fall and spring migration seasons. Thousands of birds following age-old routes along the lakefront die unnecessarily during each migration, including about 1,000 in just one night in October 2023 at McCormick Place's Lakeside Center. When birds see reflections of the sky or plants, they mistakenly fly into the glass and are injured or die. At night, tired birds are disoriented by illuminated buildings or lured by the light in those buildings, especially if those buildings contain greenery.

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The more that birds die in Chicago, the more the city is harming bird populations on the continent and damaging the environment elsewhere, potentially leading to such things as crop failures. In 2019, the journal Science reported that the United States and Canada were home to 2.9 billion fewer birds than in 1970.

Bird advocates worked for four years with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, hoping the new specifications, which will be released for 30 days of public comment on April 15, would require new construction covered by sustainability guidelines to use such bird-safe features as decorative grilles, patterned glass or netting. Bird advocates said they were told in December there indeed would be requirements. Many people called for just that during the preliminary public comment period, which ended March 31.

Instead the department is proposing an updated system in which builders get "points" toward sustainability goals. The problem is that builders can meet sustainability goals with other approaches, such as energy efficiency or reducing indoor water use, that do nothing to help birds. Annette Prince, director of Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, told us that, even as simple as bird-safety measures are, builders have tended not to pick them to help meet sustainability goals.

There is time to get this right before the final proposal is released on April 15, four years after the City Council instructed city staff to develop bird safety requirements for new construction. Chicago should do so, either by strengthening the guidelines or enacting a bird safety ordinance such as cities like New York and Skokie have done. It's cheaper to design a building or major renovation to be safe for birds than to retrofit it after the fact.

It would be in keeping with Chicago's role as the first U.S. city to start a "Lights Out" program in 1999, in which building owners turn off lights, especially on lower levels, during bird migrations. Chicago also was the second city to sign the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's "Urban Bird Treaty," which brings organizations together to create bird-friendly environments, including for the songbirds, hawks, falcons, gulls, owls, terns, shorebirds and waterfowl that migrate through Illinois. Even McCormick Place is moving toward bird-friendly window film or a shading system to cover windows at nighttime, Prince said.

Migration is a hard time for most birds even without urban perils, and bird habitats are shrinking. In February, the United Nation's Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals reported 44% of migratory bird populations are declining worldwide.

New buildings and major renovations are required to include such things as sprinklers, fire alarms and accessible entryways. It isn't asking too much to include measures that save birds and protect the ecosystems of large swaths of the Americas.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.


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