SUSTAINABILITY Migrating birds

Loyola students make the University safer for cross-continental flyers

By Seanna Mullen Sumrak

Seven years ago, Reuben P. Keller was a new faculty member at the Institute of Environmental Sustainability when he noticed three dead birds while walking around the Sullivan Center. They had crashed into the two-story building.

Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus is home to buildings with east-facing windows to take advantage of its views of Lake Michigan—but the campus is also situated in a prime flight path for migrating birds. More than 100 species fly over campus throughout the year, starting from March through May and then from August to November. Birds navigate their migratory route by the stars, flying at night and in the early morning. Keller knew that Lake Michigan offers protection from birds’ natural visual predators, but many of Loyola’s buildings provide a deadly barrier along their flight path. They are unable to perceive glass, making it more difficult to avoid fatal strikes with windows. Simple solutions such as blinds and window decals help birds notice windows as an obstruction.

Keller proposed the idea of an engaged learning course that could address the issue of bird strikes across Loyola. In spring 2012, a large group of students began canvassing Loyola’s lakeside campuses, looking for ways to prevent crashes. This inaugural class devised a name, Student Operation for Avian Relief (SOAR), drafted a logo, and committed as a group to search campus every morning during both fall and spring migration seasons—walking once before sunrise and once after, collecting any birds that may have struck the windows.

SOAR is a great way to get students to think about the ecological and biological diversity that is all around us. It is amazing that Loyola’s campus is habitat for these dozens of species twice a year.
— Reuben P. Keller, PhD, Institute of Environmental Sustainability

As the program began, SOAR identified the Information Commons as the main offender on the Lake Shore Campus. Before the group intervened, 10 to 15 birds could be found every morning outside the building. Keller and SOAR reached out to the University’s facilities department, and within 48 hours, they reset the automated blinds to close at midnight and open after sunrise. Now SOAR only finds two or three birds outside the building per season.

Loyola students have diversified the SOAR project beyond collision prevention and field work, capitalizing on other interests and utilizing diverse talents. To generate publicity and increase their advocacy work, they created fliers and now run the group’s website. Two students made multilingual fliers for Loyola’s housekeeping staff, a number of whom are Spanish and Polish speaking, to explain SOAR’s efforts and how adjusting blinds could save them.

But it’s not only the students who make up SOAR and the University community who are impacted by the work. The effect reverberates across the University and beyond. SOAR partners not only with facilities and athletics but also with the Field Museum, Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, and other universities, including Northwestern. As Keller explained, “Concern for the birds drives everything, but this project has been a great learning opportunity as well. We wouldn’t be in the Field Museum, meeting local photographers, collaborating with Northwestern, and interacting with facilities without this project.”

The environmental impact and the student experience, tied to the mission and identity of Loyola, motivate the work.

“Loyola is very environmentally progressive; it is part of our identity. It’s a big part of how we justify our existence to the world and how we frame what Loyola is to the world. We are incredibly privileged to have this space on the lake. With that privilege comes responsibility. By reducing the number of bird strikes, we help serve the mission of the University.”

988 million

As many as 988 million birds die every year as a result from crashing into buildings in the United States. (Source: Washington Post)

Sullivan Center

SOAR coordinated with housekeeping staff to lower the blinds at midnight and raise them when the staff arrives in the morning.

Norville Center

Facilities outfitted the arched windows with Rambler-themed decals that birds can perceive.

Field Museum

SOAR students catalog the date and location of the birds they find. The birds are then donated to the Field Museum where they become part of the specimen collection and are preserved for scientists to study.

Chicago Bird Collision Monitors

This all-volunteer conservation group collects birds that have been injured or killed in glass strikes and works with building management and architects to make the city safer. Keller regularly refers people to the organization.

Northwestern University

Northwestern also actively works to reduce bird strikes. Keller and Loyola’s architect Peter Schlect met with Northwestern officials to discuss options for reducing the Alfie’s impact on migrating birds.