Undergraduate Research in Bird-window Collisions: Drew Meyer

By Sarah Toner January 28, 2016

Drew Meyer with a (live) Golden-winged Warbler. Photo courtesy of Drew Meyer.

Drew Meyer is a sophomore at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan. Drew created his own project studying bird-window collisions, presented his research for the university, and is planning to publish the results.

I’ll start at the beginning: my freshman year at Michigan Tech, I joined our student chapter of The Wildlife Society, which was at the time participating in a national project monitoring bird-window collisions. As time went on, I began to be more and more interested in the project personally. Under the suggestion of my advisor, I applied for a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship to continue the research on my own. I got the fellowship, as well as grants from local organizations, and the rest is history.

It sounds very straightforward when I put it like that, but a lot of students struggle with the idea of getting involved in research. I think the basic take-away is this: the difficulty lies less in the workload than in the likelihood that you will need to go outside of your comfort zone. When I was young, I idolized “ornithologists” and convinced myself that I wasn’t capable of playing in their league. It was intimidating to approach faculty and ask about doing research with them, but I eventually realized that professors don’t expect you to be “on their level”; if you are passionate about birds and willing to put in the effort, you can find advisors who will support you.

With the ideas of my advisor, my own ideas, and information from the national project, I devised my own project. My primary goal was to evaluate what makes a window “deadly.” The basic idea was this: we pseudo-randomly selected ten buildings on campus, and every day I walked around every building twice, looking for window-killed birds and recording which birds were found where. I did this for four months, rain or shine, seven days a week.

A window-killed Swainson's Thrush; photo by Drew Meyer

A window-killed Swainson’s Thrush; photo by Drew Meyer

This part was a lot of work, but it still seemed miraculous that I got paid to do it.  It was depressing and morbid at times, but always fascinating. I attribute my motivation for the project to the fact that I love birds (if you have made it as far as to be reading this page on the Young Birder’s Network, I assume you love birds too). The “work” part of research is easy if you’re passionate about it, so I have little to offer in that regard except to stay passionate.

As a result of my hard work, I found many correlations, some of which were expected and others which were surprises. Previous studies suggested that in any given building or building complex, there are usually only a few windows to blame for the majority of collisions. I discovered a few of these collision “hotspots,” but what I wasn’t expecting was the degree to which collisions were actually concentrated—almost half of all the collisions happened on one side of one particular building, and about 70 percent of those were on just three windows. Other interesting findings were that vegetation (especially at the level of the windows) increases collisions, and it has an even larger effect than the amount of glass area.

A deceased Nashville Warbler. Photo by Drew Meyer.

A deceased Nashville Warbler. Photo by Drew Meyer.

Birds are also several times more likely to hit windows during migration.

The causes of bird-window collisions are complex and multifaceted, and I feel that I’ve only just scratched the surface. Understanding the window-collision dynamic is of huge importance, as windows are the 2nd most prevalent cause of human-related bird deaths (cats are first)—2 to 7 percent of all birds in North America are killed by windows each year (Loss et. al, 2014).  I don’t bring this up to depress people, but rather to emphasize that research is the best tool we have to fix the problem. As a result of my research, we now know that we can make a tremendous impact by fixing collision “hotspots” and by removing vegetation close to windows. The opportunity to contribute to the field in this way is an honor and something I’ll carry forward into my career, as well as my personal life.

Sarah Toner