New York City Passes a Landmark Bill to Make More Buildings Bird-Friendly

By a vote of 43-3, the City Council approved that all new construction must use materials that prevent avian fatalities.

New York is admired by tourists and residents alike for its sleek, modern buildings and distinctive skyscrapers, but those architectural feats also make the city a deadly trap for migrating birds.

In an effort to make the city safer for resident birds as well as the migrants that travel through every spring and fall, the City Council passed a bill on Tuesday requiring “bird-friendly” glass on all new construction to reduce building collisions. This landmark legislation passed by a vote of 43-3, making New York the nation’s largest city to require architecture that mitigates avian fatalities. A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio told the Associated Press he supports the bill, which will become law a year after its passage.

“This bill is a compromise forged by our diverse consortium, which wrestled with and reconciled competing interests of many sorts—design, light, height, use, location, cost, bird mortality,” said Kathryn Heintz, executive director of New York City Audubon, in a press release. Council members credit Heintz's group with educating them about the scale of the problem and the available solutions. “It’s a huge leap forward for long-term conservation," Heitnz added. "It will reduce collisions and save migratory birds whose numbers are declining dramatically."

NYC Audubon estimates that 90,000 to 230,000 birds are killed every year from flying into the city’s buildings. Windows and other glass are especially dangerous for birds, which often mistake the reflective surfaces for sky or vegetation and, as a result, fly straight into the buildings. 

Introduced in March by Democratic City Council member Rafael Espinal, this new bill requires new construction and major renovations to install materials that are visible to birds, such as dotted patterns, tints, or glazing on glass and windows. Specifically, the bill requires that at least 90 percent of the exterior of a building’s first 75 feet be constructed with bird-friendly materials. Other cities including San Francisco and Oakland have adopted similar regulations to mitigate bird injuries and deaths from collisions.

These relatively simple measures have proven to be extremely effective. In 2013, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan replaced its windows with fritted glass, which resulted in a 90 percent reduction of bird deaths, according to NYC Audubon.

“The materials and techniques that prevent bird collisions are already commonly used for a variety of reasons in our buildings; this legislation mandates their use in ways that also protect birds in cost effective ways,” said Benjamin Prosky, executive director of American Institute of Architects New York. “AIANY and its members are proud to have fought for this commonsense bill.”

The city has also implemented measures in previous years to make the metropolitan area safer for migrating birds, specifically through Audubon’s Lights Out initiative. In 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that state buildings will turn off non-essential outdoor lighting from 11 p.m. until dawn during peak migration in the spring and fall. 

However, Cuomo last month vetoed state legislation that would have established a committee to create regulations for bird-safe buildings. Cuomo cited concerns about the cost of a study the bill called for, and about giving policymaking authority to an appointed council. Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation that would require federal buildings to incorporate bird-friendly building materials.

“Collisions with buildings are one of the greatest threats to birds, and one of the most preventable,” said Ana Paula Tavares, executive director of Audubon New York, in a statement. “North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970 and we must make every effort to create a safer future for New York State’s wildlife. Audubon is thrilled that the New York City Council has set this precedent for the rest of the nation to help reduce or eliminate mortality from collisions.”