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Safe Passage Research

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


A salvage/research permit for dead birds allows me to collect and use birds for research and education. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources have issued me permits and I work with various scientists and organizations to make valuable use of the individuals that are found dead. When I was director at the Howard Christensen Nature Center near Kent City and Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center in Lowell, we displayed many of the birds and viewing access continues for visitors. Many were used when I taught ornithology at Grand Rapids Community College. 

Over the past decades, nearly 1800 animals have been salvaged and listed on my permit. I am required to file annual reports for birds I handle. It is not legal for people to collect birds or feathers of nongame birds without a permit. A new research project coordinated by Linnea Rowse from Michigan Audubon in association with Michigan State University professors uses salvage data to quantify how many birds and what species die by colliding with selected buildings on the MSU’s campus and in Lansing. Table 1 summarizes the species list with numbers for the two years since we began the “Safe Passage Research.” In 2019 we expanded to include Grand Rapids. I have not included the GR list but the Eastern Whippoorwill was added to the species list.

It has been known for decades that birds die by flying into objects on migration. Researchers go to radio towers after a foggy night and collect hundreds of birds that died by hitting towers or guy wires. Lights on the towers attract birds and in fog they get trapped by the lights and fly in circles around the tower. At some point many die hitting the wires or tower or become exhausted and drop. Changing from lights that were on continuously to blinking lights became a life saver for birds by allowing many to escape the light trap.

The death traps have increased because cell towers have proliferated to meet our convenience for phones and other communication. Many birds migrate above forest treetops rather than at high elevations. Migration over cities presents a hazard when birds are attracted by window lights. They approach the buildings and especially on foggy nights or during low cloud cover do not see the building in time to avoid flying into it. 

After they fall to the ground, college students listed on my permit as sub-permittees are assigned to collect dead birds. During the past two years during migration, 77 species have been salvaged with numbers recorded for each species. Our research provides limited information for how many birds die. Heather Good reported in the Michigan Audubon Jack Pine Warbler magazine that birds in the United States and Canada have declined by 3 billion or 29 percent over the past 50 years. 

Many of the deaths can be prevented. Careful placement of towers away from prime migration routes can be effective. Turning building lights off above the second floor or closing blinds to block light helps save lives. Both practices save us money on utility bills while benefiting birds. 

Noting that birds die by hitting buildings, cell towers, or windows without keeping numbers is what scientists refer to as qualitative data. It does not document how many die. The “Safe Passage Research” focus provides quantitative data by recording numbers to help us understand how many birds are lost to collisions. 

The “Safe Passage Research” helps us understand one aspect of bird declines. Some building collision data are not included in our study. A Ruffed Grouse was flying around our home and after flying in front of the house, it turned the corner by the kitchen to go around the house. It discovered too late it was a recessed porch entry, could not stop, and hit the house causing death. It has been 22 years since but I still mourn its death. Many of us have birds die when they hit house windows. These data are not included in our study.

Review Table 1 to see the variety of birds that collide with tall urban buildings. The numbers for species might represent a relative abundance for species or migration routes. There are things we can do to help curb bird declines by implementing “safe passage” practices that help bird survival in their nature niches. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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