The numbers are horrifying: 90 Nashville Warblers, 60 Blackburnian Warblers, 42 Chestnut-sided Warblers, 41 Ovenbirds—and that’s just four of the 25 dead species collected from the 23-story American National Insurance building in Galveston, Texas, on Thursday morning. In total, 395 small feathered bodies were found, and they were all victims of building collisions.
Josh Henderson, the head of Animal Services for the Galveston Police Department, was called to the scene at 7:20 a.m. He was able to rescue three of the stunned birds, which were then taken to a wildlife triage center. But the sheer number of casualties shocked him. “This is the largest event like this I have ever been a part of in over 10 years,” Henderson said in a press release.
After sorting and IDing the bodies, Henderson’s final list also included: 29 Yellow Warblers, 26 Black-and-white Warblers, 24 Magnolia Warblers, 21 American Redstarts, 15 Indigo Buntings, 8 Black-throated Green Warblers, 5 Kentucky Warblers, 4 Eastern Wood-Peewees, 3 Golden-winged Warblers, 2 Painted Buntings, 2 Orchard Orioles, plus a Hooded Warbler, Gray Catbird, Blue Grosbeak, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Orange-crowned Warbler, Summer Tanager, Worm-eating Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, and Cerulean Warbler.
Window and building strikes are a common problem for songbirds, particularly in cities located in popular migration flyways. The island of Galveston lies in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a common crossover point for flocks coming up from the Yucatan and Latin America. With spring migration in full swing, hundreds of thousands of birds are currently racing through the region to reach their northern breeding grounds. To make matters worse, Galveston got almost a quarter inch of rain on Wednesday, which might have encouraged the long-distance travelers to look for shelter.
When birds encounter glass, they see the image it reflects rather than a hard surface; so when a building’s internal or external lights are left on over night—the latter being the case for the American National Insurance building—birds can easily get disoriented. Some might think it's a place to rest, especially if they spy office plants inside, while others might just see a clear passage. Both can cause them to crash into windows or even the side of the building—often to a fatal end. After surviving a trek that takes them over hundreds of miles of land and open water, it’s an unjust end for the intrepid migrants.
The good news is that there are some ways people can help prevent these collisions. Cities can encourage building managers to turn off overnight fixtures during spring and fall migration. Several Audubon groups have convinced their local governments to do just that through the Lights Out initiative (see here for a full list of places). Owners of skyscrapers and other large structures can also invest in industry-tested, “bird-friendly” products, including glass that’s patterned so avian eyes can see it. Other urban centers have citizen science networks that collect data on collisions. In New York City and Dallas, for instance, pedestrians can report dead or injured avians to D-Bird, a project founded by New York City Audubon.
If you’re worried that the glass in your own home or office poses a danger, consider using decals or netting, as well as turning lights off or closing drapes, to keep birds from being fooled. These are all small steps, but if there’s a lesson to be learned from Galveston, it’s that even one building can have a huge impact.