Citizen Science Project Tackles Bird Collisions with Buildings

Discover how the UNAM's citizen science project tackles the alarming issue of bird collisions with buildings. Learn about their monitoring efforts, species affected, urban impact, and their quest for solutions.

Citizen Science Project Tackles Bird Collisions with Buildings
Students document bird species affected by collisions, including migratory birds like pallid sparrows and resident birds such as pigeons, as part of the ENES bird collision monitoring initiative. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

The UNAM, through the Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores (ENES) Unidad León, has a citizen science project to monitor the collision of birds with building windows, considered the second most important cause of anthropogenic death of these organisms (surpassed only by predation by cats) and which affects more migratory species.

Academics Harumi Shimada Beltrán and Paulina Uribe Morfín, together with Ian MacGregor Fors, an expert in birds, urban biodiversity, and ecosystems and professor at the University of Helsinki in Finland, coordinate the strategy through which they seek to provide solutions to this phenomenon that occurs on campus and is of concern due to the growing urbanization of Mexico. The project includes students from different degree programs, academics, administrative staff, and ENES employees.

Shimada Beltrán explains that the initiative arose from the concern of the university community when dead birds were found around the buildings. Professor Paulina Uribe proposed a citizen science project with the involvement of novices in the field of birds who receive guidance from the expert MacGregor-Fors.

"It was decided to make an account of what was happening on campus, and now the project is part of the Interdisciplinary Sustainability Laboratory; it is one of the strategies to protect the fauna on campus since we are in a peri-urban area. During this time, we have seen that migratory birds are among the most affected," said the researcher, within the framework of World Migratory Bird Day, which is commemorated this May 13.

The expert in Agrogenomics says that the specialist, Ian MacGregor, taught the university students the methodology to collect the birds. Also, when they found them, they had to measure the distance they were located from the buildings to be able to infer if they had suffered an impact. In addition, they had to take photos of the birds to identify them and analyze if they showed signs of impact on their beaks, necks, etc.

With this information, the ENES students have made a database, and together with the academics, they have also used the results of the monitoring to publish their first scientific article. It included information on 69 birds that collided in one year. Most were migratory: pallid sparrows (Spizella pallida), blue bunting (Passerina cyanea), white-winged bunting (Passerina amoena), hummingbirds (Archilochus alexandri), as well as resident birds including pigeons, goldfinches (Spinus psaltria), and kestrels (Falco sparverius). The individuals they found on campus were donated to UNAM's Institute of Biology.

"This information is evidence of the urban impact on birds," says Uribe Morfín, a graduate student in Intercultural Development and Management, who adds that the project has also served to reflect on urbanization and the impact that humans have on other species.

"It allows us to reflect on our presence in a territory that we share with other species, but we are not the center of the world, the universe, or divine creation. It is very important that we see this interrelationship and our impact because urbanization is a human need for shelter, but we are impacting other species," she says.

Now the members of this citizen science project are studying how to obtain funding to place visual signs, similar to stickers, on the windows of the ENES León buildings to prevent more birds from colliding. These signs can be uniform patterns of figures such as stripes, lines, squares, bird silhouettes, or dark spots.

Alarming Bird Mortality in Urban Areas

It is estimated that in urban areas of the United States and Canada, there are up to one billion bird deaths per year, a figure that shows a severe problem for the conservation of several species, according to the article "Bird-building collisions in the United States: estimates of annual mortality and species vulnerability" to

In the case of collision fatalities, it is known that birds collide with windows because they do not identify them as obstacles, and what they perceive is reflected vegetation or the sky.

In addition, these impacts occur more frequently during the spring and fall migratory seasons and are recorded mostly at dawn, which is when birds are most active. Likewise, it has been observed that small birds that migrate at night may be attracted by the lights of buildings.

It is also known that there are species that migrate at night from central Canada and the south-central United States of America to northern Mexico and the south of the continent and use the stars, among other factors, to guide their flight paths. In Mexico, studies on this subject are incipient.

It is estimated that Mexico is home to more than a thousand species of birds, representing approximately 11 percent of the global avifauna, and the issue of collisions is of great relevance because Mexico is in constant and growing urbanization, which poses a problematic scenario.

"We know that in some countries it has been achieved that in the legislation on construction, it is contemplated to protect birds. We see that the city of Leon, Guanajuato, is growing a lot in the form of towers and buildings, and we believe that we must consider this information so that we do not have a greater problem of bird impact," said Paulina Uribe Morfin.

The two UNAM experts emphasized that the citizen science project has made it possible to include students from different undergraduate programs in research and have them participate in the elaboration of possible solutions to local problems.

"For me, it is important that students see this as environmental training so that they are not paralyzed by messages that the world is going to end. We face a crisis, and we must understand its complexity and find solutions to our local problems as far as possible," Uribe Morfin insisted.

He pointed out that there are more female students in the project, perhaps because caring for the environment is part of the roles imposed on women. However, this fact also calls for raising men's awareness of the need to care for the environment.