New Jersey Audubon and PSEG work to protect Newark’s bird population

By Elena Knopp

October 23, 2017

It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in downtown Newark, and Michael Rodgers, a seasonal field biologist and survey technician for the City of Newark, has already been at work for close to two hours.

He carries a large bag and a knapsack on his back as he prepares for the next leg of his journey in search of dead or injured birds.

Already, Rodgers has found and bagged five dead birds.

The bustling city center seems an unexpected place for Rodgers to be conducting research.

But this is bird migration season, with large populations of birds coming from the north—mostly from Canada, New York and New England—and flying south through Newark, which sits along the Passaic River and is part of the migration corridor known as the Atlantic Flyway.

Rodgers is part of a dedicated team from New Jersey Audubon – an organization dedicated to protecting the state’s birds, mammals, plants and natural habitats – which is on a mission to help protect Newark’s bird population.

In the hopes of bringing awareness and a solution to the issue, New Jersey Audubon – in partnership with PSEG – initiated the “Evaluating Bird/Building Interactions in Newark, New Jersey” project last spring, in which a dozen buildings throughout Newark are surveyed and data collected.

Birds that live in urban settings such as Newark face numerous threats to survival, including mortality from bird-window collisions.

As the state’s largest and most populous city, birds flying through Newark face very specific dangers — the continued redevelopment of the city has seen a proliferation of high-rises and with that, more precarious conditions for birds.

Window collisions are the second highest cause of bird mortality, with an estimated one billion birds dying each year in the U.S. alone, according to New Jersey Audubon.

“A lot of people are not even aware of this,” Rodgers says. “When you tell people about it, they never knew it was an issue.”

Rodgers conducts the surveys five days a week in all weather conditions, walking miles each day throughout the city and collecting data and information in the hopes of solving the crisis.

Nellie Tsipoura, Senior Research Scientist and Director of Citizen Science at New Jersey Audubon, said that measures need to be taken to address the pressing issue.

“While the overall number of birds killed in Newark is large, what is also extremely important to understand is that the entire northeast coast of the U.S. is part of the Atlantic Flyway and very urbanized,” Tsipoura said. “Entire populations of these species that follow the coast depend on sites with tall buildings and may be subject to high mortality because there are no alternatives.”

Reflective glass and lights on buildings are the main issues causing bird collisions, said Tsipoura, as glass used on high-rises throughout the city are reflective and cause confusion for the birds.

“Glass collision is a real problem everywhere, probably because we have so many tall, well-lit buildings,” Tsipoura said. “The birds, mostly nocturnal migrants, are attracted to the light while they are migrating during the night, get disoriented, and drop to the ground.

“In the morning, the birds that survived landing among building, are faced with glass that is completely reflective,” she added. “Birds can’t tell that a tree is there or if it is a reflection. They end up colliding with the buildings as they try to fly up.  There is a huge movement to change the glass, and we’re working on solutions, such as glass that is not so reflective and other bird-friendly designs.”

Tsipoura added that many buildings are required to keep a certain amount of lights on for security reasons, but this also poses a problem for birds.

“We’re trying to get ahead of this and require planners and architects to use new designs,” she said. “Automatic lights that go on and off would help.”

PSEG Deputy General Counsel and Managing Director Gerry Smith, who is also on the board of New Jersey Audubon, said the company’s interest was piqued when it heard from New Jersey Audubon about the steady bird collisions in Newark.

“PSEG has had a very good relationship over the years with New Jersey Audubon, and they reached out to us about the issue after a volunteer from the Raptor Trust was finding injured birds in Newark,” Smith said.

Smith noted that PSEG was already working on a number of energy conservation lighting projects, such as automated lighting.

“There are all kinds of theoretical reasons why you’d see dead or injured birds,” she said. “New Jersey Audubon needed to gather data and work on the issue scientifically and we talked with them about what would make sense.”

It was decided that surveys would be the best way to go about collecting the necessary data.

With PSEG providing the funding needed to conduct the surveys, New Jersey Audubon put together a team of biologists and survey technicians.

“We identified 12 tall buildings in Newark and conducted surveys on these buildings,” Tsipoura said.

These buildings include the National Newark Building, 1180 Raymond Blvd., Penn Plaza East and the Horizon Building, the Newark Legal Center, the Panasonic Building, Seton Hall Law School, the PSEG Building, the Prudential Tower, Prudential Plaza, One Gateway, Two Gateway and Four Gateway Center.

The surveys begin a half hour before sunrise, with three surveys done on each building, ending about two hours after sunrise. This is done seven days a week for several months.

Team members are equipped with nets for catching birds, a special bag to transport injured birds from the site, plastic bags for bagging dead birds and field guides to help them identify the many different varieties of birds.

In addition, careful data is taken—the precise location of each bird found, surrounding conditions and species of each bird—and all carefully noted.

“Every building gets visited three times every day for the entire period,” Tsipoura said. “Our staff and volunteers understand that there is something you can do about it. We want to identify the issues, understand them and then solve them.”

Tsipoura said that last spring, the New Jersey Audubon team found more than 260 birds that collided with buildings spread across all 12 buildings surveyed.

Of these, 150 were killed, 50 stunned and the rest injured and later taken to the Raptor Trust, a bird rehabilitation center located in central New Jersey.

“Our observation is that about 50-60 percent of birds that hit buildings are killed,” she said. “Most of the injured birds recovered. It was a good outcome.”

On the day that TAPinto Newark joined Rodgers on his bird survey, six birds were found, with one injured and five of them dead.

Rodgers pulled out the birds, each bagged and marked individually.

Among the birds were three White-throated Sparrows, a Chipping Sparrow and a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.

The sixth bird found waited in the car to be transported to the Raptor Trust.

“All birds without exception have intracranial hemorrhaging,” Rodgers said, noting that the birds’ behavior indicates that they do not see the windows before they collide with them. “A lot of times the birds fly into windows and it appears that they’re just stunned.”

Rodgers noted that once birds are brought to the Raptor Trust, they are placed in a crate in a dark and quiet room to allow them to calm down and recover, then sent out on a test flight and later released if the flight is successful.

“If the test flight doesn’t go well, then the bird will be rehabbed until it can be released,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers recalled a bird he found injured last spring, a Wood Thrush that had flown into the PSEG building.

“There was blood coming out of its mouth and I thought for sure that it would be dead by the time I got it to the Raptor Trust,” he said.

But the bird survived and was released in July.

“They were able to release it,” Rodgers said. “Euthanizing is always a last resort.”

Rodgers notes that during migration season, turning off lights in buildings would decrease the number of bird window collisions.

“It doesn’t totally prevent it but it reduces the number of window collisions,” he said.

Smith said she hopes PSEG can share information about the bird collision project with architects and engineers and help pioneer the implementation of measures that might mitigate the number of bird collisions in Newark.

“This shows that you can have a common good with an entity like New Jersey Audubon,” Smith said. “It’s good for business and good for the environment.”

Tsipoura noted the project is part of New Jersey Audubon’s overall mission.

“We want to connect people with nature and steward and protect nature for the people of tomorrow,” Tsipoura said. “This project fits exactly right into our mission. We want people to be aware and for people to help protect the birds.”

New Jersey Audubon, a privately supported, not-for profit statewide membership organization and founded in 1897, is one of the oldest independent Audubon societies in the nation.