Flight Safety: New Window Film Aims to Prevent Bird Collisions at McConnell

This new window film with vertical lines has been applied to the glass bridge at McConnell and the ITT to prevent bird collisions.

Thanks to the efforts of concerned students, staff, faculty and alumnae, far fewer—if any—birds are flying into the glass-enclosed bridge between McConnell and Burton halls.

Bird-window collisions kill some 975.6 million birds each year, according to a study by researchers at Muhlenberg College. Here at Smith, more than two dozen birds are killed every semester by crashing into campus buildings, according to the Office of Facilities Management.

Windows are especially dangerous because birds do not perceive transparent glass as solid. It is even tougher for them to avoid flying into windows that reflect the sky or outside scenery.

Since it was built in 1964, McConnell Hall has become known as the site of numerous bird collisions at Smith. Over the years, the building has even earned the nickname “Bird Death Bridge.”

Previous attempts have been made to reduce the number of bird collisions at McConnell. Stickers of hawk silhouettes were applied more than a decade ago in an effort to keep smaller birds from flying into the bridge. Unfortunately, says Gary Hartwell, project manager for Facilities Management, that strategy failed to prevent collisions.

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This photo shows the old silhouettes on the windows of the bridge at McConnell. The stickers did not prevent birds from flying into the glass.

Two summers ago, concerned alumna Pamela See ’73, who had majored in biology at Smith, helped launch a new push to put an end to bird collisions on campus.

“I live in the area, and I have seen many birds die because of glass at Smith, and in particular, at the glass walkover between Burton and McConnell,” See says. “I also found eight dead cedar waxwings at the entrance to the ITT building, and that is what got me on the war path, so to speak.”

See contacted Margaret Lamb, administrative director of the Clark Science Center, who had long been concerned about bird collisions at McConnell. Lamb “got the ball rolling,” See says, and arranged for meetings with Hartwell.

Students in an upper-level Environmental Science and Policy seminar took up the rallying cry in the fall of 2014, conducting research that underlined the need for a permanent solution to the bird-window problem on campus. Keighley Lane, Laurel Payne and Liz Young—all members of the class of 2015—designed a capstone project, “Saving Two Birds with One Decal: Mitigating Bird-Window Collisions on Smith Campus” that measured how “deadly” each building was to local bird populations.

Through a combination of detailed observation and word-of-mouth reports, the students created a GIS map of every building at Smith, labeling them on a scale from most to least dangerous to birds. The McConnell bridge and the Indoor Track and Tennis Facility were deemed the most deadly. (The Campus Center had only one bird death during the time studied but the building was still listed as a potential hazard).

Armed with information from the students and See, Hartwell hired a contractor to begin testing films specifically designed to prevent bird strikes on glass. The goal was to find high-quality, aesthetically pleasing film that would help keep birds from crashing into large windows on campus.

Research pointed to the need for film on the outside of the McConnell bridge to disturb the windows’ mirroring of the sky. Hartwell also learned that the spaces between the opaque film and the transparent window had to be smaller than the palm of a hand—or approximately 4 inches apart—for birds to see the glass as solid.

The chosen film, with its carefully spaced vertical lines, was applied to the bridge before the start of the fall semester. Since then, Hartwell says, custodians have not reported a single bird collision there. As he puts it, this is “the best follow-up study” possible on the strategy’s effectiveness.

The same vertical-line film was applied earlier this month to the windows of the Indoor Track and Tennis Facility, and Hartwell says it may be applied to other campus buildings if the need arises.

The bird-loving community at Smith is most definitely rejoicing.