Condor in the Cordillera Huaywuash, Peru

In response to a much publicized new study on North American bird populations that appeared in the journal Science last month, we received a significant number of inquiries from businesses about what an appropriate response might be from a responsible company?

The study found “cumulative loss of nearly three billion birds since 1970, across most North American biomes, signals a pervasive and ongoing avifaunal crisis.” Since 1970, the researchers estimated, the North American bird population had declined by roughly 29%. The study was published with its own hashtag #BringBirdsBack that was successful in garnering a large public reaction on social media and otherwise to “an overlooked biodiversity crisis.”

So, what is an ethically oriented response for a company?

We have suggested for some businesses an ideal response can be voluntary compliance with the LEED v4.1 Bird collision deterrence credit that aims to “reduce bird injury and mortality from in-flight collisions with buildings.”

The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED green building rating system is widely accepted and while LEED certification certainly has its advantages, our advice is that a very good response can be to enact company practices complying with this single LEED credit. The credit publicly available at the USGBC website, has three requirements:

There are new v4.1 versions of the credit for new construction as well as existing building. 1. For new construction, companies should develop a building façade to make the building and site structures visible as physical barriers to birds (.. yes, including ‘bird safe glass’). 2. For all buildings, including existing structures, limit the duration of interior and exterior lighting. Exterior building fixtures that are not necessary for safety, building entrances, and circulation can be automatically shut off from midnight until 6 a.m. The credits allow for manual override capability for after hour use. And 3., the credit requires a three year monitoring plan to identify and document locations where repeated bird strikes occur such that potential design solutions can be implemented. The credit language is here.

Utilizing a third party created LEED credit (although in this instance originally drafted by the American Bird Conservancy) can provide a credible response mitigating risk of criticism for greenwashing, that can be touted in corporate sustainability claims including in ESG reporting (yes, public companies are including bird safe policies in public reporting). Be aware LEED water use reduction credits are frequently used to articulate potable water reduction requirements.

But there are issues with allowing public sentiment reacting to the environmental issue of the minute to dictate corporate, or for that matter public, policy.

A 2014 study, conducted by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and the Fish and Wildlife Service, estimated that between 365 million and 988 million birds are killed in the United States every year as a result of building collisions. But that study concluded that building collisions, driven by the increased use of glass building facades, are second to cats as the greatest threat to birds. But banning housecats does not make a good business response.

It is suggested that green building programs, like LEED, encourage using natural light to reduce energy use and encourage green views, result in the use of more glass as a building skin. And windows are no friends to birds as we all know from the popular old Windex television ad. Moreover, in a published report, the Urban Green Council, a chapter of the USGBC indicates “today, almost all large, complex buildings make the same trade off:  they add more glass (leading to an energy penalty), and make up for it with superior mechanical systems.” In response to that collateral damage of the environmental kind. USGBC now awards up to one point on its LEED scale for the adoption of bird collision deterrence mitigation.

So yes, it is an unintended consequence of LEED green building that creates the solution to this environmental issue of the day.

But there is no nationwide repository of bird casualties or injuries, so estimating the scope of this is difficult. It is widely perceived that building collisions, and particularly collisions with windows, are a major threat to birds, with estimates swinging widely. A recent literature search published in The Condor, based on 23 studies, estimates that between 365 and 988 million birds are killed annually by window collisions in the U.S., with roughly 56% of mortality at buildings 4 to 11 stories, 44% at buildings 1 to 3 stories, and less than 1% at skyscrapers. But keep into in mind there are only about 21,000 buildings 12 stories or higher in the U.S. versus over 123 million 1 to 3 story buildings, so statistically only 24 birds might perish each year at any one skyscraper (and that number is likely artificially high because only a small percentage of those skyscrapers are located in bird flyways).

How many birds can actually be saved by a building implementing the LEED credit is debatable but remember the task is an ethically oriented response for the large number of businesses that contacted our office this month, reacting to the overwhelming public outcry on social media and otherwise to the 3 billion birds that vanished.

However, on a personal note I spent most of August trekking and climbing across the Cordillera Huaywuash in Peru, where I saw nearly a hundred Andean condors (.. including the condor in the photo above), one of the bird types that have flourished, according to the journal Science study, increasing in population by more than 200%, in the Americas since the 1970s.