Bird Collision Series: Issue essay


As you sprinted across the modern campus in early spring for an afternoon Math class, a string of sharp, cheerful whistles seized your ears, stopped your steps, and pulled your glance towards the sky. A tiny ball of feathers sprang off the tip of a budding cherry branch, flipping the tip of its blue tail. A couple of feet away, a high pitch rang. Startled with joy, the dancer turned in mid-air to join her partner in an elegant yet passionate tango. At times their gray wings spread fully to reveal their fiery red flanks, shimmering brightly in the golden glow to every beat of their songs…

A red-flanked bluetail. From the Internet.

This beautiful song of life bumped into an abrupt halt. On the concrete floor two feet in front of the glassy academic building the same red-flanked bluetail lay. Its gray wings wrapped tightly around its body, the burning glow fading from its flanks. Its pale claws remained twisted at an eerie angle, its beak half-open as if to let out a final screech of pain.

A poor bird lying on the stone-cold concrete after collision with windows. From the Internet.

Suddenly, a familiar high-pitched note pierced through the silence. The red-flanked bluetail’s partner landed close to her ice-cold carcass, gently poked at her feathers and, having received no calls in response, stumbled a few steps back. His beaks trembled to open a crack but could not let out a single sound. He looked bewilderedly at his deceased lover, then stood long beside her, gazing into the distance.

Does he know what killed the love of his life with such a ruthless punch? On his own, can he feed his five children and sustain them on their month-long flight back North? Who knows if he will be spared from the same fate as his partner? Behind the tiny carcass, a formidable glass wall reflects rows of cherry trees shaking their branches, like monsters waving their long arms, howling louder and louder to every blow of the chilly wind.

Bird’s imprint on window after collision. From the Internet.

These monsters lurk everywhere in the cities. I see them sunbathing on the large balcony windows of condominium neighborhoods, posing in front of fashionable displays of downtown shopping plazas, climbing up the towers of corporate complexes in Central Business Districts… They stand in silence, reflecting an enticing new world with lush canopies, white clouds and blue skies, like deep wells that lure innocent, curious children to peek down the verge into a whirling, upside-down Wonderland and accidentally fall, never coming back out the same way.

Glass, the hallmark of modern architecture, presents the fast-paced, desire-driven city life in full glaring display. This light-weight and versatile material maximizes the amount of entering natural sunlight, which reduces energy consumption and therefore makes buildings more “environmentally-friendly” (Düsseldorf 2020). The transparent façade acts as a two-way magic mirror, pulling passers-by to the consumeristic glory of every store and pushing indoor workers to the hustle and bustle of the city outside. At night, golden lights in alternate rooms beam through the all-around glass façade, keeping the city awake until another day of toil.

A typical all-lit city skyline. From the Internet.

Birds are my only escape in the forest of concrete. When I pounded my head on the desk on top of piles of homework, a spotted dove landed on the gingko tree outside my windows and quietly plumed its feathers until I picked up my pen again. When I dragged my debilitated body to school across streets studded with strangers, a white wagtail bounced right in front of me in its slim-fit tuxedo, greeting me with its exuberant “ji ling—” calls. When I was cloistered in a tiny apartment from a virus that roamed the entire city, a group of yellow finches hopped up and down the branches of budding peach flowers in my neighborhood, announcing with a chirpy symphony that spring was around the corner. Their swift flights and joyful songs remind me of endless beauty and novelty in the world around us. Birds are angels bestowed by nature upon city dwellers, and if we learn to appreciate and live in harmony with them, they will continue to be the savior of our souls until the end of time.

A white wagtail pair posing for the camera. Taken by me on Canon EOS M50 at Dayu Bay, Kunshan, China.

Sadly and ironically, these angels are maimed and even murdered by the transparent monsters that make city buildings more “green”. When bird residents and migrants fly by during the day, they mistake the reflections of greenery in glassy facades for open spaces in an attractive habitat, causing them to fly willingly toward the glass, only to crash into a stone-cold wall. At night, the bright lights in glassy buildings serve as an attractant, pulling these helpless creatures toward suicide. Every year, 100 million to one billion birds die from window strikes in the United States alone (Bracey, Etterson, Niemi, and Green 2016). This number could mean one billion fewer pollinators for our crops, one billion fewer guardians for our dwindling biodiversity, and one billion fewer fairies who spread happiness in our cities.

The angels of our cities do not have to die, and the glass facades do not have to kill. Putting translucent dot-like stickers four inches apart on a floor-to-ceiling glass wall has curbed hundreds of bird collision incidents a year in a single Toronto building (BBC News 2018). Architects can design urban condominiums with less glass or shopping plazas that frame windows to reduce landscape reflections. Glassy building inhabitants can dim their lights at night and turn off the lights as soon as they leave the room. In this way, city glass buildings can be truly green without the stain of avian blood, and the angels of our cities can spread their wings and sing their hymns for our harmony with nature.

Bird-friendly aqua tower in Toronto.

Islina Shan

Feb 18 2021


BBC News. 2018. “How to Stop Birds Smashing into Windows.” Accessed Feb 18, 2021.

Bracey, Annie M., Etterson, Matthew A., Niemi, Gerald J., and Green, Richard F. 2016. “Variation in Bird-window Collision Mortality and Scavenging Rates within an Urban Landscape.” The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 128, no. 2 (June): 355-367.

Düsseldorf, Messe. 2020. “Glass in Modern Architecture.” Accessed Feb 18 2021.

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