Standing up for Songbirds: How the DZS Supports Bird-Friendly Initiatives  

Photo credit: Kip Kriigel

Authored by Bonnie Van Dam, curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).

One of the greatest joys of walking outside is listening to the chirps and chatter of songbirds — from the warble of the yellow warbler to the call of the American goldfinch.  

Despite the beauty of their songs, these birds face enormous dangers every day, especially during migration season. Whether it be the reflection of untreated glass windows or the pull of bright city lights, man-made hazards have proved detrimental to local and migrating songbird populations. In this blog, we will explore some of these hazards and what can be done on a legislative, local and personal level to reduce these hazards and stand up for songbirds.  

Photo credit: Patti Truesdell

What are our legislators doing to protect songbirds? 

I recently spoke at a public hearing for Bill B24-0710, which is a Washington, D.C. Council Migratory Local Wildlife Protection Act. This bill would require all new building construction or façade improvements to use bird-friendly materials, like bird-friendly glass, which is specifically designed to make glass a visible obstacle for birds while remaining transparent to humans. A passed bill would also establish a Bird-Friendly Buildings Fund to support building owners as they work to implement these potential changes.  

Untreated, or non-bird-friendly, glass poses a major risk to migratory and local resident birds; between 365 million and one billion birds die each year in the United States when they collide with buildings. This is because the transparency and reflections of untreated glass leaves birds unable to tell the difference between the horizon and a solid building. Birds flying at night may also be attracted to, and therefore confused by, lights inside buildings – which leads to them stopping over, resting and refueling in our cities. Once the birds resume their migration journey, it’s likely they’ll encounter an untimely death after colliding with a glass window. 

These are tragic facts, but legislation like DC Bill B24-0710 can change things. While these types of bills only affect Washington D.C., Illinois, Minnesota and a few other cities nationwide, there are other municipalities looking to enact similar bills into laws as well. Related laws requiring bird-friendly buildings have been passed for New York City, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, Portland and other smaller, local jurisdictions – and each one of these acts will save thousands of birds’ lives. As our society continues to construct buildings with glass windows, it is also society’s responsibility to help birds navigate windows, which are silent and invisible hazards to them. 

The DZS uses bird-safe glass on its campuses.

What is the DZS doing to protect songbirds? 

In addition to supporting bills like DC B24-0710, the DZS has been committed to preventing collisions for our local resident and migratory birds for years. Because the state of Michigan has birds migrating from both the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, the Detroit Zoo’s campus has 24 buildings equipped with bird-safe glass or retrofitted with film, and we’re constantly educating our guests about the importance of bird-safe glass with graphics and flyers.  

The DZS also focuses on collaboration to meet our conservation goals for songbirds. Our commitment to the Detroit Urban Bird Treaty creates bird-friendly environments and provides everyone, especially kids, with opportunities to connect with nature through birding and conservation. This is thanks to collaborative efforts between federal, state and municipal agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations and academic institutions, that  

reduce work to limit hazards to migrating birds, promote community science activities and provide community education and outreach.  

I am a founding member of North American Songbird SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction), an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) conservation program that harnesses the collective strengths of AZA-accredited facilities, alongside other partners, to grow conservation impact and effectively save species. NAS SAFE focuses on more than 300 avian species that migrate through North America to fight population loss that stems from habitat loss, climate change, building collisions and predation from outdoor domestic cats. Our bird collision initiative has gone a long way toward protecting these beautiful birds and setting best practices at the local, state and provincial levels.  

Photo credit: Roy Lewis

What can you do to protect songbirds? 

You don’t have to wait for your city or state to adopt bird-friendly legislation to do your part to keep migrating birds safe! There are plenty of low-cost and low-burden ways to make the glass around you safer for birds, including using bird-safe glass in new construction and treating existing glass with a variety of film products. You can even purchase bird collision prevention products at the Detroit Zoo’s gift shop! 

Additionally, you can: 

• Reduce evening lighting during peak migratory seasons by participating in Lights Out programs 

• Purchase certified Bird Friendly Coffee© to preserve neotropical bird wintering grounds 

• Select grass-fed beef to help save grassland birds 

• Purchase certified sustainable paper products to help preserve the nesting grounds of boreal forest songbirds 

• Participate in native songbird community science projects and Urban Bird Treaty activities in cities 

• Celebrate World Migratory Bird Day  

If we all — individuals, conservation organizations and legislators — work together, we can make a true difference and save the lives of countless migrating songbirds. 

Window decals are a great way to protect birds from building collisions.

Detroit Zoo Welcomes Nearly 100 Bird Species During Spring Migration

Throughout spring migration, the Detroit Zoo’s 125 acres provided refuge to many weary travelers. Now that the season is coming to a close, our staff is looking back at all the feathered friends who used our grounds as a stop on their journeys.

Read more about migration season and how you can help birds arrive at their destinations safely.

Blackpoll warbler

Over the last couple months, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) team members have spent many hours surveying what bird species have been utilizing the habitats here at the Detroit Zoo. Some of these species live here year-round, while many species have shown up during migration and will spend the summer here breeding on Zoo grounds. Additionally, several species have used the Zoo to rest or refuel for a matter of hours or days on a long journey home to their breeding grounds.

We have seen and heard many species of songbirds, black-crowned night herons, a redhead, spotted sandpipers and much more! From March until the end of May, we accumulated at least 93 species on Zoo grounds.

Canada warbler

The incredible journeys these brave travelers make every year are hard to put into words. Many winter as far south as Central or South America and may head far north of us into the Upper Peninsula or northern Canada to breed. The blackpoll warbler is one of these extraordinary migrants who recharged at the Zoo this May. This tiny, insectivorous species only weighs around 11 grams and sings a very high-pitched song. They often travel more than 10,000 miles round trip — including an Atlantic Ocean crossing — as they head back and forth from South America to northern Canada and Alaska. 

Migrating birds overcome extreme challenges when heading back and forth between breeding and wintering grounds. Besides exhaustion and native predators, there are many human-made challenges.  Fragmented habitats, light pollution, domestic cats and windows are just some of the man-made threats that make migration even harder. Here at the Detroit Zoo, we are proud to provide these birds an excellent, protected habitat on their perilous journeys.

Learn how you can help reduce light pollution and save birds’ lives.

— Matt Porter is a member of the DZS birds animal care staff.