flight plan

How Bird-Friendly Building Rules Will Fly in New York

Glass towers on the northwest corner of Bryant Park
Glass towers on the northwest corner of Bryant Park Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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This bill could save a lot of beaks.

The City Council is expected to soon approve legislation that aims to make new buildings constructed in New York much less likely to kill or injure birds.

The “bird-friendly” bill sailed through a Council committee with no opposition on Monday, and sources said it’s set to get a green light from lawmakers on Tuesday.

The law, which would go into effect next December, mandates that all new construction and major alterations to buildings include special materials along facades to avoid avian strikes.

The legislation is the result of years of lobbying by bird experts, advocates and rehabilitators who have seen firsthand the results of birds flying into buildings.

A female scarlet tanager died after flying into a building in September.
A female scarlet tanager died after flying into a building in September. Photo: Phyllis Tseng/Wild Bird Fund

Rita McMahon, director of the Wild Bird Fund, noted that only about one-third of the 1,000 injured birds her group cares for annually survive. She called the bill “wonderfully courageous.”

“New York, the largest city in the U.S., will be showing their determination to care for wildlife,” McMahon said.

As the bill soars through the Council, here’s what the bird-friendly measures will look like from the ground.

What Will Change?

A lot of glass. Birds are most susceptible to flying into transparent windows and walls, particularly when trees and other vegetation are reflected on glassy surfaces, experts say.

New York City Audubon estimates between 90,000 and 230,000 birds die in collisions across the city every year.

Newly constructed buildings will have to use materials on windows that are easier for our feathered friends to see — but only under 75 feet, where birds do most of their flying.

New Yorkers walking on the street likely won’t notice a huge difference in the skyline.

Chris Sheppard of the American Bird Conservancy noted that bird-friendly designs can be as simple as adding small dots, stripes or designs — known as fritting — to glass.

A bird soars between buildings at Brookfield Place in Battery Park City.
A bird soars between buildings at Brookfield Place in Battery Park City. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Other measures include putting screens or shades on windows, or using specially made glass with ultraviolet coating that’s visible to birds, but not humans.

“If you want to have a glass box, you can have a glass box,” she said. “Glass companies — certainly over the last decade, and particularly in the last couple of years — have started to recognize this trend that there actually is a market for bird-friendly materials.”

In other instances, bird-safety measures would be baked into a facade’s design.

Examples can already be seen at The New York Times building on Eighth Ave., where an exoskeleton of ceramic rods helps regulate the temperature while keeping birds away, and in Cooper Union’s metal mesh-wrapped building, said Dan Piselli, director of sustainability at FXCollaborative, which practices bird-friendly design.

In certain cases, glass may be slightly less clear under the new rules, Piselli said.

“That’s part of the balance of dealing with what humans need — we need to see out of windows, we need to have daylight — with, you know, not literally killing the nature that we’re trying to see outside,” he said.

Why Now?

For bird advocates, the bill has been a long time coming. Sheppard said she and others, particularly New York City Audubon, have been pushing for change for at least 15 years.

Increasingly dire news about the bird world has fueled a renewed urgency: A recent study showing 29% of birds have disappeared from North America since the 1970s.

Other cities and states have enacted similar bird-friendly legislation in recent years, including San Francisco in 2011 and Minnesota in 2013. But Piselli predicted the New York measure would be a game-changer.

“It’s definitely going to be the most effective legislation on this topic anywhere,” he said.

Flocking Together

The city’s real estate lobby has accepted the new rules, following negiotiations. A representative for the Real Estate Board of New York told The Associated Press the group supports “a science-based approach to reducing bird deaths,” and thanked the Council for addressing concerns it had about the legislation.

Among the tweaks made ahead of Tuesday’s vote, according to sources: Lengthening the time between passage of the measure and when the new rules would take effect, and loosening transparency requirements to allow more types of materials to be used.

McMahon gave credit to those who advocated for the bill — and to those who hammered it out.

“They’ve worked hard to make it so that the realtors, the architects, the developers, can implement it with the least trouble to themselves, and with greater clarity,” she said. “It’s really been carefully wrought.”

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