This article by Denise Ryan originally appeared in The Vancouver Sun on 26 April 2019.

Every once in a while Penny Martyn thumps a tennis ball or a small toy mouse against the glass window in her office.

This isn’t stress relief or idle play. Martyn is using the toys to re-create the impact of a bird striking the window.

When the toy hits the glass, a sensor records the impact and sends data wirelessly to a nearby laptop where it is recorded on a spreadsheet.

Every year, an estimated 10,000 birds are killed on the UBC campus by colliding with windows — and it’s a problem that Martyn, manager of green buildings on the UBC campus, is determined to solve. As part of UBC’s green buildings plan, Martyn has introduced bird-friendly design rules that will be mandatory for all university buildings by 2020 and new residential buildings on campus by 2025.

Existing buildings can be retrofitted in various ways — and that’s where the monitor, designed by a group of UBC engineering students, might help.

Because birds can’t perceive glass, especially when lit up from the inside at night, they fly into windows and are killed. That can be remediated by reducing glazing in all construction, and using patterned or opaque windows to make them visible to birds. Another option is to install screens or exterior coverings as a visual element in front of windows.

The UBC Bookstore mezzanine is a space for relaxing, studying, and small gatherings. Here, extensively fritted glass in a densely spaced design reduces bird collisions by creating large-scale visual noise and providing visual cues of the glass to birds. Additionally the text pattern features sentences from the favourite books of UBC professors, students, staff, and visitors and acts as a creative public engagement piece to express a sense of academic community. 

UBC has done several studies on the bird collisions, but data collection was cumbersome. “We had to actually walk around buildings to see if they had hit the windows,” said Martyn. Researchers would search for smudges on the window or bird carcasses on the ground that hadn’t been carried away by wildlife.

In a 2013 research paper, Environment Canada estimated up to 42 million birds are killed by building collisions in Canada each year. Approximately 1.5 billion are killed in North America annually. Migratory birds have not adapted to urban environments, where lights and glass confuse and kill the birds in large numbers.

Vancouver is on the Pacific Flyway, a north-south transit route for migratory birds. According to the Audubon Society, a billion landbirds, seabirds and waders — including western sandpipers, hummingbirds, pigeons, finches, sparrows and crows — use the path that sweeps through Alaska, Alberta, B.C., Yukon and Northwest Territories, and down to Arizona, California and Mexico — and the number of birds on the Flyway has dropped precipitously in the last century.

Krista De Groot, a landbird biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, has worked on the problem for over a decade, and consulted with the city and with UBC. She said bird collisions are a year-round problem in the Lower Mainland.

“We have resident birds that are joined by migrants from higher elevations and further north. Southwest B.C. has the highest density of overwintering birds in Canada, and collisions are very prevalent in homes, businesses and institutions.”

UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability’s west facade features a living wall of a mesh screen with vines, which creates a barrier between windows to help reduce bird collisions. Additionally, research studies show that living walls have the potential to provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for urban birds. 

In 2015, Vancouver city council introduced the Vancouver Bird Strategy, a set of voluntary guidelines aimed at reducing habitat loss and hazards.

While De Groot lauds the Vancouver park board, which retrofitted their Stanley Park headquarters with bird-friendly glass, she said, “every municipality needs to do more.”

Toronto, which has mandatory bird-friendly rules for new construction, has been a world-leader, said De Groot. She said it is in large part to the work of Michael Mesure, executive director of the Fatal Light Awareness Program, or FLAP Canada.

Mesure said it’s hard to even talk about the incident that convinced him to dedicate his life to birds.

In 1989, Mesure found a common yellowthroat on the ground, stunned from a collision. The bird was injured, but alive. As Mesure transported it in his car, the bird began to serenade him. “I was mesmerized and awestruck,” said Mesure.

Then the singing stopped suddenly, and the bird collapsed and died.

“It’s taken me 30 years and I still cry when I tell that story,” said Mesure.

Shading devices at the UBC Earth Sciences Building reduce heat gain and glare in the building as well as block reflection of vegetation and sky by creating a physical barrier and areas of deep shade which help to prevent bird collisions. PHILIP BERTOGG/UBC / PNG

In 1993, he and some friends founded FLAP to protect nocturnal migrating birds that become attracted to the bright lights of the city, specifically lights flooding from the glass windows of buildings.

Once a bird is in a light source — the spill of light from an interior office space, for example — they hesitate to leave it. The phenomenon is not fully understood, says Mesure. “It’s kind of like a moth to a flame. When birds pass through a brightly lit nocturnal environment, they will pass through, then turn around and come back to that light source.”

The birds will flutter up against that light source until they succumb to exhaustion.

Glass is invisible to birds so they will either attempt to fly straight through it or if they see a reflection on glass, say of trees or leaves, they perceive it as the real thing.

UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Research Centre hosts many offices and labs for research on ecology, evolution, and conservation of biological diversity. The surrounding landscape is an important site for local biodiversity, and exterior screens on all sides of the building create a large-scale barrier to impede birds from flying through. 

Statistically, reflective glass is more lethal than clear. Window collisions tend to happen at the height of and below the city’s tree canopy because birds are either insectivorous, seed-eating or fruit-eating and they make their way through the tree canopy from tree to tree. If a tree is directly in front of a glass-windowed building, the bird might fly toward the reflection of a tree in the glass, thinking it’s the real thing.

Mesure, who has worked with Martyn to conduct risk assessments on UBC buildings for bird-window collision potential, says Vancouver’s terrain helps prevent some of the fatal light collisions.

The north-south mountain ranges that guide migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway have lush vegetation so birds that fall out of migration are less likely to encounter tall structures. However, collisions with buildings are much worse in foggy or drizzly conditions, because birds are forced to fly at a lower altitude.

“During migration, millions of birds will die in a single night.” said Mesure. Thanks in large part to the efforts of FLAP and Mesure, cities across Canada have incorporated bird-friendly design guidelines into their built environments.

Toronto, which is on one of the busiest migratory pathways in North America, has adopted some of the toughest standards in North America to protect migratory birds, with mandatory requirements for all new construction. Toronto’s standards include reducing window-glazing on building envelopes, glass bridges and railings, using bird-safe glass that is patterned or opaque, or has exterior screens, grills, shutters and sunshades.

UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Research Centre hosts many offices and labs for research on ecology, evolution, and conservation of biological diversity. The surrounding landscape is an important site for local biodiversity, and exterior screens on all sides of the building create a large-scale barrier to impede birds from flying through. PATKAU ARCHITECTS / PNG

UBC has decided to make its own bird-friendly guidelines mandatory.

“The biggest push back we’ve been given in creating the change is the concern of costs and esthetics,” said Martyn. “Everyone thinks that covering the glass with patterns it’s going to look ugly, but that’s not the case.”

Successful on-campus designs include the UBC Bookstore, which features glass inscribed with text that is visually appealing to humans and visually “noisy” enough to divert birds.

The Earth Sciences Building features a grid of exterior screens that has the dual benefit of reducing solar heat gain within the building, and providing a visual that is defined enough to protect birds.

Exterior screens are also employed on the UBC Campus Energy Centre and the Beaty Biodiversity Research Centre. A “living wall” of mesh screens with vegetation prevents bird collisions and provides food, shelter and nesting opportunities on the Centre for Interactive Research and Sustainability.

Window applications that increase the visibility of windows and feature patterns of dots or lines can be added to existing windows, as long as the marks are spaced no more than five centimetres apart.

At the UBC Biodiversity Research Centre, a contrasted 5 cm x 5cm dot pattern film has been applied to the exterior surface of windows as a pilot for student research on bird collisions. Bird friendly film is a cost-effective, easily to install, off the shelf solution that can be applied as a retrofit. Dot patterns don’t obscure views much for people and have been tested through research as an effective solution to bird collisions. DANIELA ORBEGOSO CAMPBELL / PNG

Martyn partnered with UBC’s SEEDS Sustainability program in 2017 on a competition to design a window application that would prevent collisions for the CIRS building, which was won by PhD student Zozia Moon.

This year Martyn reached out to the UBC SEEDS program to challenge engineering students to design some kind of monitoring device. Emily Xiong, a fifth year electrical engineering student, and five others jumped at the opportunity. “Everybody likes birds,” said Xiong.

“One of the hardest things was to simulate what a bird impact looks like,” said Xiong. The group worked with kinematic equations which measure the motion of objects, including velocity and acceleration to determine the difference between a bird strike and something else, like a stick hitting the window.

The device, which uses an accelerometer to measure the vibrations, and transmits data via Wi-Fi, is cheap, easily replicable and could be used on any window.

Martyn bounces the mouse off the window again as Xiong checks the computer to see the number change indicating a bird strike. “There’s a lot more we can do,” said Xiong. “But this is a good start.”