Heidi Trudell is The Dead Bird Girl.
She wishes she weren’t, but “when you know the problem, you cannot look away,” she says. Directly in her line of sight are the millions of acres of plate glass windows filling the facades of new homes and office buildings across North America. “Humans have a love affair with plate glass,” she says.
And it’s that glass that is killing birds. Hence her nickname.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, up to one billion birds are killed by window collisions in the US every year. Birds do not see glass the way humans do. To a bird, the reflections of trees and sky in a window looks like an extension of habitat. Birds will fly into a window at speed, and that first encounter is usually fatal.
Trudell, 33, wants to change these statistics. She earned her nickname in college when she began a window strike monitoring program on campus. Since kicking off the Dead Birds 4 Science! Facebook page in 2014, she has become nationally known among bird conservation advocates and wildlife rehabilitation centers for her outreach for window strike mitigation, leading window monitoring programs during migration seasons (known as “safe passage” programs), and advising Facebook followers on what to do with a dead bird carcass.
It’s a calling that has been largely volunteer for two decades, managed between day jobs and relocation from Texas, where she is from, to the Midwest, where she attended university and currently lives. She’s now taken a recent spell between jobs to pivot into professional consulting with architects, home owners and office building facilities managers for bird strike mitigation pre-and-post-construction, done under the business name Just Save Birds.
I haven’t addressed the sadder side of loving birds on my website much, if at all. But Trudell’s singular focus and authority for window strike mitigation intrigued me. Her efforts, candor and accessible platform fills a niche that is valuable to readers here.
Read through for a history of her project, her methods and recommendations, and what you can do about your own windows in order to prevent bird strikes. Links to resources are throughout, as well as at the end.
How did bird collisions become your calling?
Heidi Trudell: I have been almost exclusively bird-focused for as long as I can remember. When I was seven years old, I picked up my first roadkill, An adult male Indigo Bunting, on the central Texas coast. My parents helped me identify it and then we buried it.
Growing up I do remember the occasional Mourning Dove hitting our sliding glass doors, and our local rehabber was about a half an hour drive away - I do not recall the ratio of deaths to survivors, but by the time I took up bird watching when I was 13, I was well aware that dead birds could be donated to science. The limiting factor was freezer space and familial patience - Nobody else in my family was into birds.
The “Dead Bird Girl” nick name, tell me more about that?
HT: The long and the short of it is that when you have a reputation as the bird girl, when you go to college and people find dead birds and bring them to you, you become the dead bird girl. My sister always resented being "bird girl's sister" and since we went to the same college, it of course turned into "dead bird girl's sister." Then years later she took a window-struck thrush to rehab in California and somehow I was mentioned and the rehab person was like "OH! I KNOW HER!" and hopefully now I'm off the hook, because the Dead Birds 4 Science! Facebook group is how the rehabber knew me.
It seems like I am a better mouthpiece/networker than hands-on activist: I do think that age and gender have had a lot to do with it, because I am taken much more seriously in the digital realm that I am in person, because I am a small, young looking female. I can see how it’s hard to believe that I have been picking up birds since I was seven, but it’s hard to be assumed a student/undergrad at the age of 33, with nearly two decades of experience.
Is the work you do with window strikes independent of any organization?
HT: I am a “walking organization”! I started monitoring in college and eventually started a safe passage program under the auspices of Washtenaw Audubon (in SE MI). I help support a similar program for Detroit Audubon, and I’ve prepared data collection protocols for people just starting out. And people reach out to me for advice because of Dead Birds 4 Science!. (More recently) I’m working with architects and industry to help them design products that will be bird safe. I don’t represent anything or anyone which is great so I can give my unbiased opinion.
How many birds survive window strikes?
HT: There isn’t a lot of data for survival from window strikes, but anecdotal observations show that fifty percent of birds die on impact, and it’s likely that a significant number of the survivors will die of their injuries later. A bird that hits a window and survives is literally “walking it off” like a football player after a concussion, but without the medical attention right there, and dangers like cats, raccoons and more windows all around. The best thing to do if you find an injured bird from a window strike is to get it to a rehabilitation center asap.
What makes a window especially dangerous, such as in a single family home?
HT: Data shows that homes with bird feeders kill more birds than those without. If you have feeders, place them on the glass or within three feet or less so birds can’t get momentum and hurt themselves. But there are feeder strikes and non-feeder strikes. Some species that don’t come to feeders will still hit windows. There is definitely a species bias for what hits windows; warblers, thrushes especially.
For an example of what birds experience, Apple has built a campus that their staff routinely walk into, collisions that require medical attention. (Most of the time) humans are conditioned to look for and anticipate glass either because of framing or other cues. Birds aren’t.
I love old school windows! Warped, mullioned, small scale. Not nearly as dangerous to birds. To replace that you want to create a bold visual pattern on the surface of a newer window (to reduce the reflection).
What is the best thing to do if you find a dead bird? Steps to take, legal issues in keeping skins, where to report the finding, where to donate the skin?
HT: Bag it, tag it, freeze it, and find a home for it ASAP. Tag should include date, location, cause of death if known, finder’s contact information. The more critical part is making sure that it is frozen immediately and that arrangements are made as soon as possible to get it to a permitted institution. Many nature centers, university biology departments, wildlife refuges, and natural history museums will accept donations from the public. I don't prep skins (too squeamish! HAH!) just ferry them from the scene of the crime to their resting place... often with a photo shoot in between.
Keeping the specimen is not legal. Having evidence of your intention to donate the specimen is generally enough to keep people out of trouble for stray specimens. If you frequently come across dead birds, it is well worth the effort to be added to an institution’s permits, as I have been. Calling around and asking who is willing to take them is a good start - as with wildlife rehabilitation, it is better to know the information before you need it.
Is there a way to report found dead birds, like there is for live birds, with eBird?
HT: There’s Birdmapper, but it’s very new, so it will be interesting to see if it catches on.
What are the biggest constraints to your work?
HT: Budgets. No one wants to kill birds but no one wants to spend money to prevent it. But in the design phase, you can include it in that phase and not add to your building cost. But (when mitigation is considered) after the fact, you’re looking at a lot of money for people, labor, cranes. I’m talking about commercial and industrial buildings.
If it’s state funds, people should comment. No one wants their state funds going to buildings that kill birds. But then we have this large local university, which just completed construction of a huge, glass-facaded building. We tried to tell them that this building would kill a lot of birds, but they declined to modify the plans to include bird-safe glass. This fall we see that birds are dying. The U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis has a similar sad story. Mitigation ultimately comes down to funding, and it is so much cheaper to fix it before things are built than after.
For a home owner, it would not be as much money, as it depends more on the number of windows.
What are some successes you have witnessed or influenced?
HT: One success story is the Hartwick Pines State Park in MI. I first went there in 2015 to see Kirtland’s Warblers and Evening Grosbeaks. Their visitor’s center has huge windows, and because I can’t NOT talk about it whenever I see windows like that, I chatted with one of the staff there. Turns out it was the right guy to talk to, as I was preaching to the converted: Craig Kasmer, a park naturalist and interpreter, was who I spoke to, and I have no idea what happened behind closed doors, but since summer 2018 the windows have CollidEscape on them.
My goal is to get as much information to people in positions to make the change. Generally people don’t take this message well from an outsider, so when I can start a conversation with someone, it’s beautiful.
What can a regular person do around their home to prevent bird strikes as much as possible?
HT: As above, if you have feeders, place them close to windows. And you want to create some kind of visual pattern on the outside surface of the problem window, so the birds can see that it is a barrier. American Bird Conservancy has a lot of great do-it-yourself suggestions (for bird strike prevention) on their website, such as patterned tape and dots. Home owners should know, you will get used to looking through it very quickly. Also, flap.org has the best flyers, handouts and downloadable resources.
By the way, dirty windows do not work. And forget the falcon sticker! If it disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn’t be soon enough! It doesn’t work. Most people buy one of those and then birds still hit their windows, and they think, “well, I tried.” and that’s where they stop. They see they have already spent time and money and don’t want to go further.
As soon as we know better about what works, we should get the word out there.
What do you see for yourself going forward as a way to advocate professionally?
HT: I'd love to be a neutral, third party consultant getting education to people who already care and might be more inclined to DO something (if companies want to chip in and support some festival booths or conference-attending-funding, that'd be awesome)... but for now I'm focusing on providing support for architects who are trying to navigate bird friendly building design, since it's a complex topic and a lot of assumptions end up backfiring. Preventing the need for retrofits is a good start.
I wouldn't mind representing some of the bird safe product companies, as long as their stuff works! Acopian Bird Savers (sometimes called Zen wind curtains), CollidEscape, Feather Friendly -- there are a number of fantastic products out there. I just want to reach people who care about birds and can make change happen.
The more people know, the more likely they are to be able to do something about it!!
She and I exchanged emails and then spoke on the phone at length in late October, 2018. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.