On a Wing and a PrayerJun 01, 2021 11:27AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
One October morning in 2020, a sad and gruesome sight greeted employees at the Visit Potter-Tioga Visitor Center when they came to work. Nine black-capped chickadees lay dead on the sidewalk. “It was almost like a scene from The Birds,” administrative assistant Kirsten Tellgren says, referring to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror classic. These small creatures are year-round residents in Pennsylvania, their cheerful cheeeeeseburger call familiar to many.
Board President Curt Schramm says he received a call saying “There are birds lying here dead!”
“We really do care about our environment and nature,” he says, “even if it’s just a little bird.” They had to get to the bottom of this mystery, especially since Wellsboro is an official Pennsylvania Bird Town, the first outside of the southeastern part of the state.
They called the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and were referred to the local chapter of the Audubon Society, specifically to Sean Minnick, who’s been a member of the Tiadaghton chapter since shortly after he and his wife moved here in 2014. “Back then I didn’t even know what a warbler was,” he says, “but they took us under their wing.” From his tone, I’m not sure he intends the pun, but it’s clear what his intentions are toward birds. He is currently the chapter’s treasurer, and the secretary is his wife, Robin. (I swear that’s her name.)
So, Sean headed out to the scene of the crime. By the time he showed up, another chickadee lay there. As he studied the carnage he noticed that a lone birch tree across the parking lot was clearly reflected in the building’s glass door. Nothing like this had happened before, but for some reason a flock of chickadees had started mistaking the tree in the door for the real thing. “They were flying full speed,” Sean explains, “and couldn’t survive the impact. We think of those types of fatalities being caused by high-rises, not one-story buildings in the middle of nowhere. But this is not just a big city issue!”
A study published in the October 2019 issue of Science magazine, “Decline of the North American avifauna,” finds that we have 2.9 billion fewer breeding birds than in 1970. That’s a loss of one in four birds, with the greatest losses among the most common bird families. The website 3billionbirds.org calls this loss “huge”—29 percent over the last half century.
The main reasons for this decline are habitat loss and degradation, but windows are right up there (even if only on the first floor). A 2015 study of annual human-caused bird mortality found that cats are responsible for 2.6 billion deaths, windows for 624 million, vehicles for 214 million, and industrial collisions for 64 million—including power lines (57 million), communication towers (6.8 million), and wind turbines (140,000 to 679,089). As 3billionbirds.org points out, each of us can make a big difference by keeping our cats indoors (or walking them on a leash) and making our windows safer.
But how does one make windows safer? That’s what Bob Ross, thirty-year member and twice president of the Tiadaghton chapter, wanted to know after having just about every type of bird living in the woods near his house strike his windows trying to get to the reflection of his happy trees. The last straw was when he found a dead wood thrush under his window one summer day. “These birds have the most beautiful song in the forest, and they are also declining,” Bob explains. “My heart was broken, and I was not going to let this happen again. I was tired of killing birds because of my great views—purple finches, goldfinches, catbirds, yellowthroats, veery, most of my woodpeckers, on and on.”
Most of us have heard that sickening “thud” of feathered bodies against glass. The fact is that many of the birds who seem only stunned and later fly away suffer from internal injuries and die, and half of bird-window collisions leave no evidence at all. Maybe, like Bob, you stuck decals on the inside of your windows hoping to keep the birds from slamming into them. “Those stick-on profiles of raptors you may find available are useless because the bird outside sees reflections of my woods, not something pasted to the inside of my window,” he says.
After doing research, Bob went with acopian birdsavers, a type of screen made from dangling paracords outside of the window about four inches apart. Birdsavers.com has them for order, as well as directions for making your own. Bob, who lives near the Muck north of Wellsboro, says he enjoys his views even more since installing these five years ago because he experiences 75-90 percent fewer bird strikes. “For those who’re skeptical of losing their view, not really,” he notes. “You habituate to them and because of the narrow diameter, they don’t really affect my view.”
Sean researched options for the Visit Potter-Tioga Visitor Center, helped by a brochure created by the Bird-Window Collision Working Group of Audubon Pennsylvania, which lists many approaches. The main thing the best choices have in common is that the screen, tape, or film is applied on the outside of the glass where it disrupts the reflection. The visitor center chose to use the film made by CollidEscape, which can be custom printed. Heckler Design created the graphic using the logo and providing information on their bird strike prevention program so all visitors can learn about this problem.
“It’s amazing how it seems opaque from the parking lot and only slightly shaded from inside,” Sean says. “You don’t even know it’s there.” If you want to learn more about bird strike prevention you can head to the visitor center at 253 Route 660 in Wellsboro, or check out the Tiadaghton Chapter online at www.facebook. com/TiadaghtonAudubon. Better yet—become a member! Sean will be glad to take you under his wing.