William and Mary professor works to save birds from building strikes

Every spring and fall in the city of Chicago comes a strange and terrible sort of carnage: sidewalks littered with the carcasses of birds.

Common birds, rare birds. Small birds, large birds. All victims of their anatomy, their migratory instinct and the skyscrapers built in their ancestral flyway along the shore of Lake Michigan.

So many dead birds, in fact, that they make up a major portion of the specimens in Chicago’s prestigious Field Museum of Natural History.

“They’ve gone out early in the morning and collected even rare species that are migrating through,” said John Swaddle, a biology professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg who did post-doctoral work at the University of Chicago. “When one of the curators told me that a fair part of their collection was determined by bird strikes, that was eye-opening to me.”

But it’s not just the Windy City — the same happens in other major metropolises with buildings that tower like brick-and-mortar islands in a sea of sky.

The result? Roughly a billion birds in North America that crash and die every year.

Swaddle hopes to fix that.

He’s developing an alarm system of sorts that would warn off migrating birds as they approach a tall building, cell tower or wind turbine.

He calls his emerging technology an “acoustic lighthouse.” It’s already undergone a proof-of-concept in the college aviary, and now Swaddle is pursuing grant or industry funding that will enable him to take it for a test-drive in an outdoor setting, hopefully in the next year or two.

‘Slamming on the brakes’

The reason migrating birds crash into tall, man-made structures is actually pretty straightforward, said Swaddle: “They’re not really looking where they’re going.”

And it’s not their fault — they’re just…

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