Architecture for the Birds

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Its mesh screens make San Francisco's Federal Building one of the most bird-friendly buildings in town. (Image by JDX, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Its mesh-screens make San Francisco's Federal Building one of the most bird-friendly building in the city. (image by JDX, courtest of Flickr Creative Commons)

Whenever Mike Lynes drives over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco and sees the sparkling blue citadel that is Rincon Tower, he doesn’t think about the modern architecture or the sleek design. He thinks about one thing: dead birds.

“The façade of this building, basically on all sides, is almost entirely glass,” he says.

Lynes is the Conservation Director and General Counsel for the Golden Gate Audubon Society. He says if you are a bird – say, a western flycatcher, migrating north from Mexico – what you see in all that blue glass is a great wide expanse of sky. “So, the bird thinks it’s flying into open air. And in that situation, the bird never has a chance.”

Scroll down the page to see examples of bird-friendly architecture in the US.


Death by Window, Turbine, or Cat

The death toll from bird collisions is even higher than you might think.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Program, as many as one billion birds die each year in collisions with man-made structures. Office buildings, particularly plate-glass covered office buildings, make up a bulk of that number.

For comparison, according to the American Bird Conservancy, 440,000 birds a year die when they fly into the blades of a wind turbine, while a billion more are killed by cats. Habitat loss, pesticides, and other threats bring the toll up near five billion bird deaths a year.

Recently, lawmakers have started to do something about this problem. A federal bill, the Bird-Safe Buildings Act of 2011, is under consideration in the House of Representatives. Chicago has established bird-friendly development rules. Now San Francisco may follow suit with its own ordinance.

Through bird eyes, buildings like these look like wide-open sky.

San Francisco is already home to a model of bird-safe architecture, the new Federal Building, on Seventh and Mission streets. Whether he meant to or not, architect Thom Mayne did birds a big favor when he designed a large mesh screen over the building’s windows. Mike Lynes says it may be the most bird-protective building in the city. “It basically looks like a big solid object in the landscape that a bird needs to avoid,” he says.

The proposed ordinance would not require that all new buildings look like the Federal Building.

To begin with, the rules would apply only to buildings in critical bird areas, like near Golden Gate Park, or along the San Francisco Bay. Glass on the lower 60 feet of these buildings would have to be either covered, slanted, or otherwise altered to be less reflective.

A "Notorious" City to Build in

This will add cost, says Craig Hartman, a partner at the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, a firm that designs high-rises and has an office in San Francisco. But what worries him more is the possibility of yet another obstacle in a city he says is already notorious for development-hostile regulation.

“The real issue,” says Hartman, “is adding yet another hurdle to the process of development in a city like San Francisco that already has enormous number of barriers and hurdles in the first place.”

The Missing BIrds

But others, like Alicia King with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Migratory Bird Program, say it’s important to consider what cities have lost: literally billions of birds that once shared our skies, and now don’t.

She if we could flash back 150 years or so, the streets wouldn’t just look different. They’d sound different too.

“It would sound beautiful, because we’d be able to hear birds in the morning, like cerulean warblers, and wood thrushes. I’d have more hummingbirds at my hummingbird feeder, and I’d be thrilled!”

San Francisco’s planning department approved the bird-safe rules on July 14th. The city’s Board of Supervisors, is expected to take a final vote later this summer.