North Texas Daily

Student’s bird strike research ties into national conservation efforts

Student’s bird strike research ties into national conservation efforts

Student’s bird strike research ties into national conservation efforts
October 29
15:00 2021

Three days a week, ecology junior Marie Mu​ñiz wakes up at dawn and walks around certain campus buildings looking for dead birds.

This routine is not just a morbid hobby — Mu​ñiz is leading a bird strike research project, tapping into the larger question of how cities and artificial lights are affecting Texas’ feathered friends.

“The only way we can really combat [climate change] is through conservation efforts,” Mu​ñiz said. “Any way you can conserve even just a little thing like migratory birds, it helps out a little bit.”

The fall avian migration period runs from Aug. 15 to Nov. 30, with the peak window occurring between Sept. 2 and Oct. 29, according to BirdCast, a project out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Approximately one in four birds migrating in the United States will pass through Texas during this time — totaling almost 2 million birds.

Mu​ñiz said Denton itself is a central flyway point for many migratory birds.

During the spring and fall migratory seasons, Mu​ñiz focuses on five university buildings to track how many birds die by flying into them. These research locations include the University Union, the Business Leadership Building, the Pohl Recreation Center, the Environmental Science Building and the Gateway Center.

“Anytime I see a tall building with lights, I know birds are whacking into it,” said James Bednarz, a senior lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences who advises the bird strike project. “[…] Based on what I’ve seen, [building] height and light, especially with some cloud cover, seems to result in birds getting disoriented.”

2015 study conducted by Oklahoma State University, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute estimated that between 365 million to 988 million birds in the U.S. die in building collisions annually.

On campus, Mu​ñiz found 12 bird strikes over five weeks during the spring 2021 semester, with the Gateway Center causing the most casualties at seven birds. One week into her fall sampling period this semester, Mu​ñiz has documented four dead birds on campus.

When Mu​ñiz finds these corpses, she logs them on iNaturalist, an app that allows citizen scientists, naturalists and biologists to map and share biodiversity observations. Mu​ñiz encourages other students and community members to log their own bird strike finds on the app. At the end of her project, which will be when she graduates, she will include other citizens’ observations.

“I’m hoping if we get a significant amount of data and really locate the buildings on campus that are killing the most birds, […] we can go to Facilities or somewhere else to start implementing bird strike prevention, which is just as little as putting a decal on windows to make them look textured,” Mu​ñiz said.

The bird strike project is one piece in what Texan by Nature CEO and President Joni Carswell called “a learning phase for why birds go into buildings.” Bednarz echoed this sentiment, stressing that there is not enough data regarding bird strikes and the effect of artificial lights on migratory birds, especially in the western United States.

“All the evidence [suggests] lights are attractive to birds,” Bednarz said. “My suspicion is if the conditions for migration start to deteriorate, their natural tendency is to seek light because things are falling apart.”

Carswell, whose nonprofit organization heads the Lights Out Texas campaign, believes bird strikes are caused by a combination of building materials and artificial light.

“The hypothesis is that it’s the reflection,” Carswell said. “The buildings themselves reflect trees or reflect birds back at themselves so they don’t realize the building is there and they fly into it.”

LOT calls for Texans to turn off all non-essential lights from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. each night during the migration seasons. To make essential lights more bird-friendly, the program recommends citizens aim them down towards the ground, close blinds and use warm light sources at 3000 kelvins or less.

While not everyone in the state is a bird buff, birds provide key environmental services, according to the National Audubon Society. This includes protecting drinking water by preventing erosion, cleaning up roadkill and farm waste, slowing the spread of disease and dispersing seeds and pollinating plants that humans use for food and medicine.

“Birds are undergoing a lot of threats right now and I think that’s a concern for us all because a functioning ecosystem has to have all its parts,” Bednarz said.

Featured Image: A Western Kingbird bird perches on a tree limb on UNT’s campus on June 18, 2021. Photo by Laura Nunez 

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Ileana Garnand

Ileana Garnand

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