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Volunteers work to protect birds in Kansas City from window strikes, by tracking where they're killed

SafeBirdKC surveys two different routes in downtown Kansas City. The bright lights from the signs and windows means that this area is prone to bird strikes.
Eva Tesfaye
KCUR 89.3
SafeBirdKC surveys two different routes in downtown Kansas City. The bright lights from the signs and windows means that this area is prone to bird strikes.

It is peak bird migration season in Kansas City, and unfortunately, that means more bird collisions with buildings. To help solve the problem, some groups are taking note of where they find dead birds.

A rainy Thursday morning did not stop Dana Ripper from collecting dead birds.

The wildlife ecologist and co-director of the Missouri River Bird Observatory found an ovenbird, a small warbler, lying in front of some windows on the former Kansas City Star building downtown.

After snapping a few pictures, she picked up the bird.

“Yes, it is not normal behavior,” Ripper joked as she gently placed the bird into a Ziploc bag and dropped it into her tote.

A small brown and white bird lies next to a stack of cards, which the top records the species as oven, the building as the KC star, the date as May 11th 2023, the time as 9am and the surveyor as Dana.
Eva Tesfaye
KCUR 89.3
Volunteers for BirdSafeKC record information about where and when the bird is found, take photos and then send the bird to the University of Kansas biodiversity lab for study.

She and the other volunteers for Missouri River Bird Observatory’s project BirdSafeKC try to survey buildings across Kansas City at least once a week — or often two to three times a week during April and May when migration is at its peak.

“What we really want to do is, we want to identify the windows that are most risky for birds and hopefully work with building owners to treat those windows,” she said.

According to the data BirdSafeKC collected, there were close to 1,400 collisions in Kansas City from 2019 to 2022. More than half of those were in the downtown area alone. That is also likely a significant undercount, as the volunteers are limited to where they can survey, and dead birds are often removed by scavenging species or people cleaning up the sidewalks.

As habitat loss and climate change affect migration patterns and populations of birds, groups like these want to protect them from striking buildings as much as possible.

Krystal Anton, the zero-waste coordinator at Johnson County Community College, started a bird survey on the campus that resulted in windows being treated to help protect birds. The survey also established methodology followed by BirdSafeKC.

“I would come to work and I'd find three or four dead birds some days. And I started to get curious about what was happening,” Anton said.

Krystal Anton holds a black and white bird with a red chest in her hands. Next to her is lab equipment and the fridge and plastic bag she took the bird out of.
Eva Tesfaye
KCUR 89.3
Krystal Anton has been surveying bird strikes at Johnson County Community College for the past five years.

She and other volunteers started surveying dead birds on campus in 2018. After finding hundreds of birds, she was able to get many of the most fatal windows decorated with small dots that would prevent the birds from hitting them.

“We put dots on about 2,000 square feet of windows that were really bad, and we were able to drop the number of birds that hit the windows by just about 50%,” she said.

When one window is treated, it can lead to issues elsewhere. That’s because once birds start avoiding treated windows, they find new pathways and end up crashing into others.

Where trees are planted in relation to the building matters too. Birds actually more often hit lower windows that are reflecting nearby trees.

“In most cases it’s definitely with the reflection and these trees are a great distance for birds to get up to a fatal speed as they’re flying,” Ripper said, pointing out the trees in front of large windows of the T-Mobile center.

 A red-haired women in a brightly patterned shirt looks out the window which is covered in a pattern of white dots in different sizes. There are trees on the other side of the window.
Eva Tesfaye
KCUR 89.3
Johnson County Community College covered windows across campus with dots that helped keep birds from crashing into them. "The theme for the dots was professional, invisible," said Anton.

The T-Mobile center is one of the buildings BirdSafeKC identified that would benefit the most from treatment as well as the old Kansas City Star building The city could also put in ordinances that either require bird-safe materials be used for new construction or manage light pollution.

Residents can help stop birds from hitting their windows by turning out interior and some exterior lights at night and closing curtains or blinds.

Kansas Citians who happen across a dead bird can also help with the survey by filling out BirdSafeKC’s online reporting form.

Anton has found the survey has made her and others appreciate birds a lot more.

“It's just fun and it connects people too,” she said. “Every day almost, this time of year, other people on campus are telling me, ‘I saw an American redstart in the tree outside my office.’”

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

I report on agriculture, food and water issues for Harvest Public Media and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. I’m based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. If you have story ideas, you can reach me at etesfaye@kcur.org or on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.
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