Illustration by Rob Donnelly
Each spring and fall, millions of colorful songbirds pass through Milwaukee as they follow one of North America’s major migratory flyways. And every year, scientists estimate that as many as one in five fall victim to a man-made hazard: skyscraper glass. Flying thousands of miles mostly at night, the birds are unable to distinguish clear windows from clear air. They’re also attracted to lights left burning inside offices. As a result, birds weighing less than an ounce smash into plates of glass at speeds that can top 30 mph. Many die. Some are only injured, and some of those, if they’re lucky, are lifted from the ground by a member of the “WIngs” team, the Wisconsin Night Guardians for Songbirds.
This band of a dozen or so volunteers fans out across the city every spring and fall, two to three times a week between 6 and 7 a.m., in search of still-breathing birds to rescue. Although the team focuses primarily on Downtown, it also has treated feathered victims from as far away as the Bishop’s Woods Office Park in Brookfield. According to Scott Diehl, the Wisconsin Humane Society employee who runs the program, other fruitful collection grounds include the intersection of North 70th Street and West Bluemound Road in Wauwatosa and the streets and sidewalks underneath the skywalks at the Milwaukee County Courthouse complex.
Volunteers bring the birds, dead or alive, to a specialized shelter within the Humane Society’s headquarters on the West Side, a clinic that treats animals of all species. Injuries suffered by the feathered patients – many are white-throated sparrows or yellow-bellied sapsuckers, two of the most common species – range from damage to the central nervous system to internal hemorrhaging and respiratory complications.
In 2012, WIngs delivered 171 birds of 52 distinct species to Diehl, the genial but intense 56-year-old Wisconsin native who wears camouflage scrubs while working at the hospital. If birds reach him alive, he’s able to save about 85 percent and return them to the wild. Experts speculate the mid-flight deaths, in Milwaukee and around the U.S., may be significant factors in the decline of songbird populations. Up to a billion birds a year meet their fate against man-made structures, though shrinking habitats are perhaps a greater detriment to the counts. “Whether or not window collisions are a significant factor,” Diehl says, “they are certainly the cause of needless death and suffering for millions of birds in the U.S. each year.”
Diehl, officially the wildlife manager at the Humane Society, would like to someday make WIngs obsolete. In Toronto and Chicago, businesses have helped by turning off skyscraper lights from 11 p.m. until sunrise. Also, putting decals on windows can often serve as warning enough for birds. Locally, these efforts must be voluntary, as neither city nor state building codes speak to the issue, though the LEED certification program for environmental sustainability is beginning to factor bird safety into its standards.
Northwestern Mutual Life is planning a new skyscraper at its Downtown campus – where the WIngs team finds many wounded birds – and the insurance giant is working “closely with an avian specialist to help ensure avian safety is factored into all aspects of [the new] project, from landscaping to architectural design,” says spokeswoman Betsy Hoylman. The company already tries to turn off as many lights as possible at night, she says.
There may be an exception for the brown tower that will be demolished to make way for the new building. On some days during March Madness, windows were left lit in the early-evening hours to spell “NCAA” on a grand scale.
Well, OK then. As long as it’s lights-out by 11.