Penn takes more steps toward a bird-friendly campus

To a bird flying over Philadelphia, Penn appears as something of an oasis. The lush landscaping of the campus offers sources of food, water, and shelter, resources that are especially attractive to migrating species that pass through the city during their long-distance jaunts up and down the Atlantic Flyway during the spring and fall.

Unfortunately, these same birds can become confused by the shiny glass surfaces on campus buildings, interpreting them as passageways to the trees and sky they reflect instead of solid surfaces. 

Last year, Joe Durrance, an IT staff member at the Perelman School of Medicine, in cooperation with Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES), and with guidance from Keith Russell of Audubon Pennsylvania and Valerie Peckham of the Philadelphia Zoo, took action to decrease the number of bird deaths on campus. Supported by a Green Fund grant, Durrance arranged to have a special film applied to the glass walls of pedestrian walkways at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Penn Medicine’s Johnson Pavilion to make them visible to birds.

The intervention had a big impact.

“In the spring of 2015, before the treatment, I monitored the Johnson Pavilion and found quite a few birds—catbirds, black and white warblers, ovenbirds,” Durrance says. “I continued to monitor regularly after the treatment was applied, through the fall of 2015 and into the spring of 2016, and I found none.”

At the other treated site at Penn Vet, Durrance found only one bird that collided with the glass since the treatment, down from nearly a dozen that were found during a monitoring period before the film was applied.

To keep track of his efforts and create a community around the issue of bird conservation on campus, Durrance has set up pages on the website iNaturalist to log both bird strikes and bird sightings

“I like the idea of people connecting with each other on this issue of bird strikes and appreciating birds in general,” he says.

Durrance’s interest and action on bird strikes formed the basis of his Master of Environmental Studies capstone project. Although he has now completed his degree, he is still paying close attention to birds on campus, and is in conversation with FRES staff, including University Landscape Architect Bob Lundgren and Landscape Planner Chloe Cerwinka, about ways to extend Penn’s bird friendly efforts elsewhere across the University.

Guided by the Climate Action 2.0 Plan, FRES will be providing instructions to design professionals working on campus to consider building strategies that reduce bird collisions. 

“We’re also planning our next steps to build on Joe’s successful pilot project,” Cerwinka says. “I think there is definitely interest around campus, so we’re looking for those willing partners to work with to move forward.”

Durrance and Cerwinka noted that Eric Weckel, executive director of open space planning and operations at Penn Medicine, and Kim Kopple, director of planning, design and construction at Penn Vet, were important partners in helping the initial window-treatment project move forward.

In addition to treating other glass buildings and surfaces around Penn, Durrance would like to try other strategies to help birds, such as a “lights out” program to dim or turn off building lights from midnight through early morning during migration season.

black and white warbler