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One night this past October, over 300 birds flew into the glass walls of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. Caught on video, the incident briefly went viral, but the event was far from singular: each year in the United States, about a billion birds die by colliding with windows. Most birds don’t recognize glass. In this they are like humans: notice how the glass walls of most retail stores include discreet patterns at eye level, so as to prevent lawsuits. We think of flight as a gift, and of birds as able to escape wildfires, floods, and predators. But flying has become increasingly risky over the last hundred years, as human construction has expanded not only horizontally, replacing nesting territory with suburban lawns, but also vertically, into longstanding flight paths.
We think of flight as a gift, but flying has become increasingly risky over the last hundred years.
In the final paragraphs of Teju Cole’s 2011 novel Open City, the narrator looks at the Statue of Liberty and reflects on its history as a functional lighthouse. The torch attracted birds much like NASCAR’s museum is now doing. After one night in 1888 killed 1,400 birds—some flew around the torch until they died of exhaustion, others hit its panels—the commander of the island decided to stop selling the bodies for hat plumage. Instead, as Cole describes, he started to track the deaths: “On October 1 of that year, for example, the colonel’s report indicated that fifty rails had died, as had eleven wrens, two catbirds, and one whip-poor-will. The following day, the record showed two dead wrens; the day after that, eight wrens.” Cole closes his novel by echoing the neutral statistics of his source, though his concentration on an unspecified species of wren—one of the tiniest, most energetic of birds—quietly presses at vulnerability:
The average, Colonel Tassin estimated, was about twenty birds per night, although the weather and the direction of the wind had a great deal to do with the resulting harvest. Nevertheless, the sense persisted that something more troubling was at work. On the morning of October 13, for example, 175 wrens had been gathered in, all dead of the impact, although the night just past hadn’t been particularly windy or dark.
Tassin’s efforts anticipated those of Project Safe Flight, an NYC Audubon program that collects data on window strikes. Each morning, volunteers head out to walk a fixed route, primarily in Manhattan. Like Tassin, volunteers note the species, the weather, the facade’s direction. They are equipped with a stock of paper bags (for any stunned or injured birds found) and Ziploc bags (for dead ones). Paper is rarely needed, though occasionally there is a live bird. As Tassin suspected, the wind has “a great deal to do” with what you can expect when you go out: in the fall, a north wind on a clear night is what a bird needs to move south, and so the next morning can be quite busy.
But the sentences that end Open City—about “something more troubling,” a failure of a pattern—also anticipate what happened in Charlotte this past October. Somewhat bafflingly, the birds that crashed into NASCAR’s glowing walls were chimney swifts, small taupe birds who spend their days scuttering after insects high in the air, and who have no reason to be up at night. It was another dent to the swift population: over the last ten years, their conservation status has changed from “least concern” to “near threatened,” then moved into the “threatened” zone in 2018.
The first time I read Open City, I was a graduate student preparing to teach it, and mainly worried about how my class would react to the plot; I essentially skipped the birds. But when I picked up the novel again last fall, it was after I’d seen hundreds of dead birds myself, and so I looked for confirmation of Cole’s figures in old periodicals. A 1916 letter to the Cleveland Bird Lovers Association proposed installing railings around the Statue of Liberty, so that birds “might have places to perch until they could regain their strength, collect their thoughts, and get their bearings,” a suggestion that had allegedly worked at similar structures in Europe.
Today, the statue’s original torch is held in the Statue of Liberty Museum, itself a paragon of bird-safe design. The museum, which opened this past spring, uses twenty-two-foot-high expanses of fritted glass—glass in which ceramic inclusions form a pattern, such as lines of dots—to ward off birds. Fritted glass can still look nearly clear to human eyes, as it does at the museum.
Though an impending change to the city’s building code will require new buildings to use similarly safe materials, and existing buildings to adopt the new guidelines as they replace their windows over the decades to come, New York is currently full of hazards for birds. NYC Audubon estimates that the city’s glass now kills some 90,000–230,000 birds each year. New York is located right on the Atlantic Flyway, a millennia-old migration route. Birds—many of whom, like swifts, are attracted to light—are pulled in by its glowing skyline; then they collide with buildings they misperceive to be shelter or open sky. Part of the allure of glass is that it seems to entangle with nature: it reflects clouds, sunsets, oaks. Ironically, this seeming connection to nature makes itactively adversarial to nature; it is precisely what makes it so deadly to birds. In September 2019, Science reported that North America has lost 29 percent of its bird population since 1970; combined with other threats, such as outdoor cats, standard glass is accelerating the decline.
• • •
One night in 1888, the Statue of Liberty killed 1,400 birds. Some flew around the torch until they died of exhaustion, others hit its panels.
The people who most often see the consequences of glass are custodians, who brush off the sidewalks early, before residents emerge or employees arrive. A few years ago, a man cleaning in downtown Newark saw that I was carrying an injured warbler in my hand, shook his head, and said, “All the time.” Collisions continue to happen throughout the day, though in fewer numbers, as birds seek food or are flushed by humans.
The other people who see dead birds are those who walk, like Morgan Parker. Her first two books of poetry, published when she was living in Brooklyn, repeatedly notice birds in situations that suggest window strikes, though the connection isn’t spelled out. In There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (2017), birds make a surreal appearance in a poem about self-performance:
If I hear you’re talking shit about mein your confessional interview,please knowseven birds have fallen dead at my feetright out of the sky.
In Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (2015), a poem opens:
Now it is afternoon deargod another bird dead headin a snow pile dull clawsin the air it would have saidif it could talk what the fuck
The disjointed, percussive style gets at something glimpsed only for a few off-putting seconds. Instead of lingering over detail or culminating in an epiphany, the poem moves on, as a pedestrian might continue down the street after a moment of consternation. Parker’s mordant “what the fuck” seems not just imagined but spoken by the observer: she has seen enough dead birds.
Victoria Chang also touches on window strikes in her fourth book, Barbie Chang (2017), where she lays stress on that same repetitiveness, and shares Parker’s refusal of vivifying detail. The building is faceless; it could be one of countless office buildings around the United States:
around an empty office building deadbirds lie in the grass newones each day hit the glass each facethe same expressionforever frozen in its own form likea stamp
Faintly echoing George Orwell’s “picture of the future” as “a boot stamping on a human face, forever,” Chang depicts a present where humans leave their impression on everything around them. Until this point, the poem has been about the Ellen Pao lawsuit (in 2015, Pao sued her employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, for gender discrimination), and about how “when we / have seen something so // many times we no longer recognize it / as injustice.” The dead birds are an inadvertent product of imperceptiveness, or callousness, and of capitalism—as emphasized by deliberately stilted syntax, in which “new // ones each day hit the glass.” The poem conveys little hope that things will change.
But things could change. The trouble is that the people with the power to modify these buildings—to add seasonal tape or netting, to retrofit them permanently, or to invest in UV-coated glass in the first place—are far removed from the effects of unaltered glass. Even when architects propose bird-safe designs, developers and building owners tend to opt for cheaper, heavily reflective materials. The effects of their decisions will be seen each spring and fall for decades to come.
• • •
Since 1970 North America has lost 29 percent of its bird population. New York City alone kills some 90,000–230,000 birds each year.
I didn’t start looking for dead birds until some months after I began working in Newark. In the early fall of 2016, as I left the city’s central train station, my eye snagged on a minuscule dingy green lump in the road, next to the curb and lying beneath a glass skybridge. It was a ruby-crowned kinglet, a species I’d previously seen whirling around trees picking off insects. Assuming it was dead, I reached for it, at which it started and flew off above the snarl of traffic.
If you begin to look for dead birds, you see them everywhere. Over the week of the NASCAR incident, I saw: on Sunday, a block from my apartment, a scarlet tanager; near the post office on Tuesday, a hermit thrush, a white-throated sparrow, and a wood thrush; on Wednesday, in Newark, a black-throated blue warbler; on Saturday, two yellow-bellied sapsuckers, one on my street and another near an unfinished high-rise in Brooklyn; and on the following Sunday’s Project Safe Flight route, a blackpoll warbler, a song sparrow, and a yellowish warbler so battered that its exact species was unidentifiable.
It’s difficult to find a rhetorically effective way to communicate these deaths to building owners, or to legislators. Though I now find it hard to forget Tassin’s and Cole’s lists, and though each entry in the paragraph just above brings back specific mornings on specific blocks, lists aren’t evocative. Photographs are limited, too: pictures of dead birds are typically as unevocative as a pair of “dull claws / in the air,” even if their plumage—monobrows, spectacles, throat-stripes, breast-spots—remains intact.
What is captivating about birds is their alertness and gusto. They’re good at “selving,” to use G. M. Hopkins’s verb for how a living being epitomizes itself in everything it does. Brown creepers inch up trees, checking for insects, and then fly back to the bottom to start up again; nuthatches scoot downward. To watch a particular bird in action is to watch variation within something familiar. You can see countless ovenbirds and still be surprised when one strolls by you—walking, not hopping—through a park in lower Manhattan, possibly headed as far south as Belize.
• • •
If you begin to look for dead birds, you see them everywhere.
Window strikes are rarely the main focus of the poems in which they appear; they are subsidiary, depicted in an array of tonalities. Danez Smith connects the energy and fragility of birds to the precarious lives of black Americans. When Smith writes, “i got a crush on each one of your dumb faces / smashing into my heart like idiot cardinals into glass,” the cartoonish simile fits with the poem’s compression of love, friendship, jocular insults, and grief. Patrick Rosal also sees young boys as implicitly threatened, glancingly comparing them in “Boys’ Bodies in Flight (are also a kind of text)” to “small bodies / crashing into glass.” Such encounters work as subdued objective correlatives, or pointed deflections of feeling.
Other window strike poems consider the human’s role in the animal’s world. Near the end of Swarm (2000), Jorie Graham’s terse sentences omit the first person, for an immediate, unselfconscious reaction:
Painful to look up.No. Painful to look out.Heard the bird hit the pane hard.Didn’t see it. Heard nothingdrop.To look out past the shimmering screen to the miles of grasses.
For Graham’s speaker, the collision entails a lurch of dismay and avoidance, though she then confronts the “miles of grasses” where a songbird could lie undetected. Fragments of the incident appear later: “look it is dead // there is sun all over it / like a moneying up of it // sparkle.”
The strategies of these poems recall W. B. Yeats’s oft-quoted division of poetry and rhetoric, where we “make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” A quarrel with self is perceptible in Graham, and the essay you are reading now is definitely rhetoric. Anne Pierson Wiese’s “Bird Hitting Glass” attempts to span the division. After seeing a pigeon “sail out of the park on a tide / of morning light” only to fly “smack into the glass wall / of a bus stop shelter,” she lists other collisions. Chickadees, for instance, ate fermented berries outside a library responsible not only for the trees but for the
three-story plateglass wall designed to let the public glimpsetiers of books inside but proving fatalto the scores of tiny birds taking off tipsywith all the conviction that accompaniesdrunkenness.
In acknowledging the larger problem of glass, Wiese cuts the suggestion of blame with a slightly comic, epigrammatic streak, only briefly opening out into a description of what arises from the library’s good intentions.
Perhaps the most explicit description in poetry of the systemic problem behind window strikes is Margaret Atwood’s “Fatal Light Awareness.” That title comes from FLAP, the Toronto-based Fatal Light Awareness Program, but omits “Program,” thereby implying both knowledge and a lack of action. The poem begins with self-recrimination, mourning a thrush as “one lovely voice the less” killed “by my laziness: / Why didn’t I hang the lattice?” From the one-off death of the thrush, Atwood moves out to make a larger critique of contemporary design, laying blame primarily on “the high rises.”
Like Atwood, for years I assumed high-rises were the main offenders, and they do a lot of damage. But it’s worth noting that most species hit somewhere in the area below the tree line. First-floor glass walls can punch above their weight. And while homeowners might see their windows as innocuous, the odd bird or two a year adds up: it’s estimated that buildings under three stories were responsible for around 250 million deaths in 2014. (Low-density residences are also eating into dwindling rural areas: wood thrushes are dying out mainly because their habitat is being broken up by suburbanization, which clears the way for cowbird parasitization.)
Even when architects propose bird-safe designs, developers and building owners tend to opt for cheaper, heavily reflective materials.
If birds are slow to make sense of glass, humans have been slower; we’ve known about window strikes for decades, but—as Atwood reiterates—haven’t changed our use of transparent material. And more than a century after Tassin began recording the birds he found, we still understand relatively little about even the commonest of these species. Take the white-throated sparrow, named for the brilliantly white daub of what looks like marshmallow fluff on its chin. White-throated sparrows have an intricate sex life. There is a tan morph, characterized by monogamy, parental attentiveness, and infrequent singing; and there’s a white morph—promiscuous, a less-than-attentive parent, and a lovely singer. (When Elizabeth Bishop mentions “the white-throated sparrow’s five-note song, / pleading and pleading,” she probably is hearing the white morph.) Tan head-stripes mate only with white head-stripes, and vice versa: in practice, the species has four sexes. Walking to my campus one morning, I ran into a volunteer for Raptor Trust, a New Jersey rehabilitation center; she had just watched a white-throat hopping and calling around a stunned travel companion, apparently trying to get it to move. The white-throat population, according to the September report in Science, is down by 93 million, and they are NYC’s most frequent window-strike victim.
Changes to glass might be coming, though gradually. For the ninth year in a row, legislators have introduced the Bird-Safe Buildings Act in the House; it has not yet passed, despite its modest goal of regulating new and renovated federal buildings. A state bill, which would have set up an advisory group on bird-safe materials, made it through New York’s senate and assembly before being vetoed by Andrew Cuomo in November.
Local possibilities have been relatively encouraging. In early December, New York’s City Council passed a quite significant amendment to the building code, requiring all new buildings—and any existing one that undergoes substantial alterations—to use less-threatening materials on their lowest seventy-five feet. Chicago, possibly the worst U.S. city for collisions, is working on a Bird Friendly Design Ordinance, and volunteers started monitoring downtown Boston last year. It remains to be seen if other cities—like Newark, or like Houston and Dallas, where the Central Flyway funnels into Mexico—or more isolated areas will do anything, given that the price of sophisticated solutions is still high.
Calista McRae is an assistant professor in the Humanities department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, author of Lyric as Comedy: The Poetics of Abjection in Postwar America, and coeditor of The Selected Letters of John Berryman.
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