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A 3,000 Mile Journey Ends with a Crash

Posted by Ali Berman at Jul 03, 2017 11:35 AM |

Millions of birds manage the impressive feat of round-trip migration, sometimes thousands of miles, returning to nesting and wintering locations year after year. ​Long-distance, nocturnal migrants, like the Western Tanager, travel from Mexico and Central America,​ to western North America as far north as Alaska. They migrate at night to avoid predation and maximize daytime foraging hours, using celestial cues from the stars for navigation. By the time they reach Oregon, they may have already traveled ​over ​3,000​ miles, making it past predators, storms, and other obstacles.

A 3,000 Mile Journey Ends with a Crash

Western Tanager receiving an exam at the Wildlife Care Center.

Millions of birds manage the impressive feat of round-trip migration, sometimes thousands of miles, returning to nesting and wintering locations year after year. ​Long-distance, nocturnal migrants, like the Western Tanager, travel from Mexico and Central America,​ to western North America as far north as Alaska. They migrate at night to avoid predation and maximize daytime foraging hours, using celestial cues from the stars for navigation. By the time they reach Oregon, they may have already traveled ​over ​3,000​ miles, making it past predators, storms, and other obstacles.

A they pass through our urban landscapes, they face another hazard: windows. Such was the case with an adult male Western Tanager who slammed into a residential window and is now being treated at our Wildlife Center. The medium-sized, brightly-colored, neotropical songbird came to us semi-conscious with labored breathing and soft tissue swelling on the top of his head. He is just one of many victims of window strikes that we will see this year.

More than 200 species of migratory birds pass through the Portland-metro area thanks to our  location along the Pacific Flyway. This annual journey is necessary to the success of each species, but navigating over urban areas presents a number of challenges to migrant birds. Among the biggest threats? A lethal combination of light pollution and an windows. Bright city lights lure nighttime migrants into urban areas, obscuring their navigational aids and causing birds to collide with windows. 

What species of birds are brought to Portland Audubon’s care center after hitting a window?

“A little bit of everything”, said Lacy Campbell, our Wildlife Care Center Manager. “Windows don’t just pose a threat to small, migratory songbirds”, but also to hawks, owls, herons and woodpeckers, and that become confused by reflective surfaces.”

Whether the species is rare or common, young or old, resident or migratory, most birds are at risk of collision-related injury, or death.

“We tend to get more young  birds in the fall who have never encountered reflective glass,” Lacy explained.  “And during spring migration, we tend to see migrants like Western Tanagers and other passerines that get disoriented as they pass through our city and then slam into buildings.”

Scientists estimate that up to one billion birds die annually as a result of window strikes in the United States alone. Light pollution lures them into urban environments and then, because birds do not recognize glass as a solid object, they become confused in the windowed maze of unfamiliar city landscapes, sometimes circling until reaching a point of exhaustion, or colliding directly with a building.

Reducing building reflections and turning off non-essential indoor and outdoor lighting reduces bird strikes and fatalities, having a profound impact on migratory and native bird survival rates. 

Just one-third of birds that pass through our Wildlife Care Center doors after a window-strike return to good health and are releasable. And that’s just the birds that survive the initial collision and are delivered to the care center for treatment. Many more die on impact or fly off to die elsewhere from internal hemorrhaging. Collisions with windows often result in fatal head trauma, skeletal fractures, and other internal injuries. 

Another Western Tanager came to our Wildlife Care Center after hitting the lowest window at a high rise in the Pearl district. Thankfully, this bird was able to be released back into the wild, a moment we were able to capture to share with you.

Want to help reduce window strikes and save the lives of birds? Voluntary and seasonal participation in our Lights Out program will help to reduce bird carnage caused by light pollution. Portland Audubon is actively working with individual building owners, city governments, and agencies to adopt bird-friendly building and lighting guidelines, and we can all contribute to saving the lives of birds year-round by reducing the number of window strikes on our homes.

If we continue to carefully consider lighting options and building design, we can keep birds safe in our cities. 

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