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Complicity

A birder learns firsthand about birds and buildings clad in reflective glass
By John R. Nelson | Published: 10/1/2014

complicity-spread-330“Our little house,” I said to my wife as we craned our necks to see the top of our hotel in Dallas.

It was our little joke, started on a honeymoon in the Yucatan, where Mary began collecting picturesque miniature houses on our travels. Wherever we wander, we hunt for little houses — thatched Celtic cottages, casitas with campesinos snoozing in sombreros, yurts — and wherever we happen to be staying becomes “our little house.” Often we travel on birding tours, with accommodations included in a package, and sometimes our little houses have been pretty plushy. But if we’re on our own, our little house is more likely a log cabin on a Costa Rican hillside or a modest beachside bungalow in Belize. It won’t be a sky-scraping shrine to chrome and glass.

We gazed up again when we got out of the shuttle van. An expanse of sky and clouds drifted into an expanse of clouds and sky. The whole huge building, a cluster of linked parallelograms ascending to different heights, was covered with reflective glass. Beside the hotel, thrusting higher, was iconic Reunion Tower, its concrete cylinders cradling a fat, latticed glass globe — either a geodesic dome or a Brobdingnagian golf ball on a tee. I heard a mockingbird nearby, repeating each riff thrice. Blue Jays, European Starlings, House Sparrows, and Great-tailed Grackles — your typical urban inhabitants, profane and loud enough to be heard over traffic — foraged on the fringes of the concrete grounds of the hotel.

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This article was published in our October 2014 issue.

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I was here for a convention of community-college trustees, not a birding tour, and even if I found the time, I didn’t plan to bird much around Dallas. I wasn’t likely to find any birds I hadn’t seen before. But after the convention, we were heading to Arkansas. I’d set my sights on this little airport outside Little Rock, a suitable winter home for Smith’s Longspur, a scarce ground-­feeder known for disappearing in grass. If, in my search, I came across a Loggerhead Shrike or Bewick’s Wren — birds we don’t get in Massachusetts, where we live — so much the better.

Big-city luxury

Mary and I grinned at each other like imposters as we rolled our luggage into the hotel lobby. We ain’t hicks exactly, but we live atop a hill in the woods with a wood stove for heat, a wind turbine for electricity, and owls calling across our yard on spring nights. We seldom get a taste of big-city luxury, with an atrium for our parlor and a high-speed elevator to take us to bed.

Personally, I felt I deserved it. In my three decades of teaching at North Shore Community College, the college had paid for just two weekend trips, once to Providence, Rhode Island, about an hour’s drive from home, and once a little farther, to Burlington, Vermont. Now that I was a trustee — in fact, chairman of the board — they were sending me, all expenses paid, to conventions in Toronto, Dallas, and San Diego. Mary was happy to come along for the ride. We’d spent the previous Halloween mingling with arrogant vampires and zombie nurses that were stalking the neon wonderland of Times Square. Instead of nightbirds, our hotel was neighbor to Madame Tussaud and Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

The next morning, Mary and I took the glass-encased elevator to the lobby, went back up, and, giggling like juvenile joyriders, shot back down again to relive the slightly queasy rush of plummeting into the atrium. She went off for a day of museums and gardens in Forth Worth, while I headed for a morning session on sustainability.

Our college had just opened the first state-owned zero-net-energy building in Massachusetts, and I was looking for new ways to make our campuses earth- and bird-friendly. The sessions were informative, if a bit self-congratulatory, with proud PowerPoint demonstrations of geothermal closed-loop systems, permeable pavement, and nighthawk-­welcoming rooftops. There was a feeling of general benevolence, of shared mission. What’s not to like about sustainability?

After the second session, I went out to the concrete patio to get some fresh air. Fellow trustees and administrators were chatting, drinking coffee, talking into cell phones, and basking in the sun. I saw a small bird beside a bench — some sort of sparrow, quite tame — and walked over to investigate. When I got close enough to identify it, a Lincoln’s Sparrow with a buffy breast wash, I realized it was dead.

Ten feet away was another dead sparrow, just behind a woman who was studying the convention schedule. Farther down was a wren, probably a Bewick’s, beside a man sipping Starbucks. How tiny and light these birds looked. I followed the trail of dead birds around a corner. Within the next hundred feet, until I ran out of patio, I found another 21, all sparrows and wrens except for one small woodpecker, mostly singles but some in little piles of car­casses, all within a few feet of the building. I turned to my colleagues scattered around the patio. No one seemed to notice that they were basking in the midst of carnage. I looked up the endless wall of reflective glass. I imagined the impact. Birds don’t have good depth perception. They didn’t see a building. These were flying through sky and saw more sky. For most, death was probably instantaneous. It’s stupid to wonder if they suffered.

I retraced my steps, recounting birds to make sure my number was accurate. I left the patio to circle the building. A gang of grackles followed me. I assumed they were residents. The dead birds had probably been migrating. Much of the perimeter, I found, was inaccessible. I tried to extrapolate. Maybe, for some reason, the bodies were more heavily concentrated on the patio, but that was just one short stretch along the hotel. There could be another 20, another 200. And this was just one glass hotel in one city in Texas.

The price of modern living

At lunch, I told a table of strangers about my dead birds. Some expressed dismay. A few shrugged — that’s the price of modern living. One smirking skeptic insisted that he’d been on the patio and hadn’t seen a single carcass. During the break between the afternoon sessions, I went back to the patio. Unless these were all fresh kills, no one had come out to clean up the birds. This time, I counted 29. One Bewick’s Wren was still faintly breathing. If I wanted, I could count the species on my trip list.

Irony was creeping in, a pathetic refuge from impotence. Around me, trustees chatted and basked. I wanted to scream at them. Here we are gathered to preach sustainability in a building that’s slaughtering birds. We should stop congratulating ourselves now. Why take it out on them? Did anger make me more innocent?

I went back inside the hotel and approached the front desk. It took the concierge a while to grasp what I was getting at. “Dead birds?” she asked a second time. “No one’s complained about that before.”

“I’m not making it up. I can show you if you like.”

“No, no, I believe you. Maybe, I don’t know, it might be this drought. It hasn’t rained here for weeks now. Maybe the birds get so thirsty and tired they just can’t fly any more.”

“That wouldn’t explain why they’re all dead beside your hotel.”

“No, I guess not. You know, we’ve had some issues with all those grackles out there, flying at the cars. One of our guests almost ran off the road.”

What was she saying? Birds vs. people? Tit for tat? “These birds aren’t grackles,” I said.

“Well, I’m sorry you’ve had a disturbing experience.” She was flushed with exasperation. She was trained to be gracious to guests of all sorts, but did I really think this was a problem she could solve? Finally, she said that if I didn’t mind waiting, she’d find someone for me to talk to.

“I don’t mind.” I pointed. “I’ll be right over there.”

No reason to be shocked

I waited on a couch as the concierge talked to a couple who approached the front desk and then another couple after them. At last, she picked up the phone. Whom would she give me to? What would I say? I knew the statistics. I had no reason to be shocked. Bird death by building was hardly news; I just hadn’t seen it for myself. According to a recent review, between 365 million and 988 million birds die each year in the United States after colliding with glass, far more than the annual fatalities caused by other well-known bird-killers like communications towers. Only predation by cats allowed to roam outdoors causes greater mortality.

At home, we’d stuck bird decals and strips of tape on our windows to warn our birds of surfaces. The hotel wasn’t going to paste decals on 40 stories of glass. Scientists, I remembered reading, were testing coatings on glass that are visible to birds but not to people, something about ultraviolet light, but nighttime would still be a problem, since migrating birds are drawn to bright lights. Why build a hotel like this one if you’re going to turn off the lights?

The concierge waved me over and held up the phone. “It’s the chief engineer for the hotel,” she told me. “I didn’t know who else to call.”

“I hear we’ve got ourselves some sort of bird problem,” the engineer drawled when I got on the phone. “Sorry you had to witness that.”

“It’s not me,” I said. “It’s the birds. They were all over the place.”

“So I gather. But I have to tell you, this is the first I’ve heard of dead birds. It’s not exactly my line of expertise, but maybe there’s something going on with the weather.”

“It’s not the weather. It’s the glass. It’s a big problem everywhere.”

“Of course, I’ll take your word for it. I’m just trying to puzzle it out. You know, our company doesn’t own this building. We just maintain it. But I’d be glad to look into it for you.”

“I’d appreciate that. I’m not sure there’s any solution, but maybe you could call the local Audubon society. There must be one in Dallas. Maybe they’ll have some ideas.”

“Sure. That sounds like a plan. I guess we don’t want our guests dodging bird bodies. I’ll call them as soon as we get off the phone.”

There was no conviction in his voice, or in mine. I had nothing to offer but outrage, dwindling into futility.

That night at dinner, Mary was brimming with stories about her excursion to Fort Worth. At an art museum she’d seen some glorious Caravaggios — a young musician with a lute, a boy bitten by a lizard — and at a Japanese garden she’d found a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I told her about my dead birds.

“That’s horrible,” she said. “Is there anything they can do about it?”

“I doubt it. Tear down the hotel.”

The next morning, I found four dead birds on the patio, all sparrows. Either the previous day had been atypical, I reasoned, or the engineer, or concierge, had sent somebody out on dead-bird patrol. The following morning, our last at the hotel, I didn’t bother to check at all. I hated the way I was feeling. I’m an optimist. I believe in seeking solutions. Despair wouldn’t help the birds. But the problem seemed overwhelming. Any solution would have to be radical, a redefining of civilization, something far beyond appealing to people to please, please, keep their precious cats indoors. Stop building skyscrapers? Stop going to conventions? Gather the carcasses in heaps in front of all glass buildings, as a message for all to see? The next trustees’ convention would be in Boston, close to home. There would be more dead birds. I’d just finished a five-year project, atlasing the breeding birds of Massachusetts. Would I now be atlasing fatalities?

We drove to Arkansas with vultures gliding above us the whole way. At the airport outside Little Rock, I spotted a lone Loggerhead Shrike, soggy in a cold drizzle. Did I find a Smith’s Longspur? Does it matter to anyone but me?

John R. Nelson served two terms as chairman of the board of trustees of North Shore Community College in Danvers and Lynn, Massachusetts. He is a director of the Brookline Bird Club and Essex County Ornithological Club. He wrote the essay “Whip-poor-will Synchronicity” in our June 2013 issue and the article “Personal Ads” in October 2012, and he described Rockport Headlands in Massachusetts, Hotspot Near You No. 128, in December 2011.