In a heart-wrenching incident on October 5, over 1,000 migratory birds met their untimely demise after colliding with the glass-clad exterior of Chicago’s iconic McCormick Place, North America’s largest convention center.
The aftermath of this incident continues to haunt Chicago, with volunteers diligently recovering the lifeless bodies of birds within a 1.5-mile radius of McCormick Place. The building, characterized by its extensive glass surfaces, presented an invisible threat to the birds.
Annette Prince, director of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, described the scale of the tragedy as “the tip of an iceberg,” emphasizing the immense number of bird casualties recorded in a single day by the group. The birds lost included Tennessee warblers, hermit thrushes, American woodcocks, and various songbird species.
Brendon Samuels, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario specializing in bird window collisions, highlighted that not all bird collisions result in immediately visible bodies. Some birds, seriously injured, may continue flying for a short while before succumbing to their injuries, making it challenging to determine the full extent of the impact.
Mass bird fatalities concentrated within a specific geographic area are more likely to occur during peak migration periods in spring and fall. Adverse weather conditions, such as opposing winds, rain, and fog, can disorient birds. Additionally, light pollution from urban areas can attract and trap birds among potentially lethal structures.
Bryan Lenz of the American Bird Conservancy pointed out that bird collisions with glass surfaces are a common issue, with up to a billion birds falling victim to these incidents annually. In the case of Chicago, the birds were likely on their migratory journey from Canada to South and Central America.
Birds play a crucial role in ecosystems, providing economic value and contributing to ecosystem functions. They aid in seed dispersal and forest regeneration, and their predation on insects helps mitigate threats to humans and food systems, particularly in light of rising global temperatures.
Among U.S. cities, Chicago’s light pollution presents a substantial risk to migrating birds. One mitigation strategy is turning off building lights, as the Lights Out Chicago program demonstrates. A study conducted at McCormick Place in 2021 revealed that reducing the number of illuminated windows in large buildings can lead to a substantial decrease in collisions by six to 11 times.
While McCormick Place is part of the Lights Out Chicago program, representatives have explained that the lights were on due to an ongoing event but would be turned off when unoccupied.
Efforts have been made to address this issue. In 2020, Chicago approved a bird-friendly design ordinance, though its implementation remains pending. In 2021, the Illinois governor, JB Pritzker, signed the Bird Safe Buildings Act, which mandates bird-friendly design in state-owned construction and renovations.
To effectively address the threat to birds, there’s a need for retrofits, tax incentives for bird-friendly initiatives, and bird-friendly window designs. As Brendon Samuels noted, “We already have solutions; we just need to put those into policy.” The tragic incident at McCormick Place serves as a stark reminder of the urgent action required to protect our avian companions.