Birds Tell All

I follow another blog called Cutter Light. It is a chronicle of an extraordinarily adventurous couple’s life working and living in remote locations. Illustrated with high quality photos and good writing, it is always a pleasure to read. I want to share two recent posts here that capture the essence of living in nature (whether urban, rural, or wilderness). Both essays involve birds and what they mean to us personally but also how birds are, uniquely, messengers from beyond the world where we are tethered.

Birds travel, migrate, sing. Their messages to us are as loud as a blaring siren and as obvious as a giant billboard if we tune in. These beautiful essays show us that language at work.

Memory and great horned owls:

2:00 AM: The Owls of Chignik Lake and Clarion River’s Gravel Lick Pool

Climate and species expansion, also limits to our knowledge of species at the edge:

The Week a Grosbeak Landed on my Head, a Chickadee Perched on my Tripod, and I finally got good Photos of Golden-Crowned Kinglets

 

In Praise of Snags

Snags are standing dead or dying trees. In natural forests in the Pacific Northwest, there are usually a number of trees that have died from lack of light, overcrowding, competition and whatnot. Forests older than 150 years are heading into old growth status and by then some trees in these forests have been killed by fungi infecting the roots or trunk (the diseases they cause go by colorful names like stringy butt rot or laminated root rot). Wind is a big creator of snags. There may be some broken tops in trees with sound roots but weak trunks (windsnap) or if the roots are rotten or the ground soft from rain and snow, blow downs (windthrow).

In an old-growth west side conifer forest (250 – 1000+ yrs) diversity abounds: openings where giants have fallen let in light to allow shrubs and seedlings to grow better, there is wood on the ground, standing dead snags, trees growing out of nurse logs, a mossy zone with perennials and groundcovers, a shrub layer, a lower understory tree layer, intermediate to very tall trees. This is all great from an ecologist’s perspective.

An oak woodland has a different character. If a woodland or savanna was burned, it might have an open character. If no fire killed the young trees and brush, it will be crowded with skinny trees reaching over each other for the light, maybe one or two legacy giants that were seedlings 150 to 300 years ago, overtopped by douglas firs; dappled shade, poison oak shrubs, and vines climbing the trees, grasses, a few shrubs (serviceberry, snowberry) and flowering bulbs (camas) and perennials (checkermallow, strawberries) persist in the low light. There will be dead standing oaks in either case, many with dead branches and brittle broken limbs among the live ones. And lichens: many species and a great biomass of lichens.

In a managed forest, the forester does the thinning in order to grow fatter trees for market, like a row crop. When these trees – all the same age – are eventually cut, like giant broccoli, there will be some green trees left and some dead standing snags because the Oregon Department of Forestry requires it.

Why? Why do we value snags enough to write them – however few and inadequate in number – into the forestry regulations? Life. And diversity. A dead tree has arguably more life in it than a live tree. The diversity of fungi, bacteria, and wood decay organisms is enormous. Beetles, termites, ants, and others feed on the dead wood and fungi. These are the base of the food web, the decomposers and recyclers that return nutrients stored over decades or centuries, to the forest.

There are plenty of birds (woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches) who visit the snag to find food, and excavate nest cavities in the softening wood. Others (owls, bats) who can’t excavate a hole, use those made by woodpeckers, in a grand circle of beneficial re-use and mutual aid. A dead tree is a great place for a raptor like a hawk or osprey to nest or sit and watch for prey, possibly a douglas or flying squirrel. Snags are so important to wildlife that getting rid of them endangers species that rely on old growth and dead wood.

Next time you drive through the Oregon Coast Range on the way to the beach, observe the difference between a national forest and adjacent tree farms owned privately or by the BLM. Instantly the trees get bigger in the national forest, the ground level cooler and more diverse, the depth of the canopy is higher and the light changes. Streams look like real streams. This you can tell at 55 miles per hour.

We had a tree next to the house made into a snag. A dougfir that needed to be removed for safety. Our arborist Brian French (that’s him up the tree in photo below) took off the limbs, topped it and crafted a new jagged top – an outstanding fake lightning strike to accelerate fungal invasion. (Final touch was a birdhouse built by birdman Tom Brewster, volunteer with the Yamhill Conservation District, local woodworker, and possessor of the best Willamette Valley accent/drawl ever.) Brian also hollowed out a section of trunk behind a carefully cut piece of bark, then replaced the bark so the birds could move in right away without waiting for the snag to soften up.

Just in time for nesting season, a tree swallow pair scouted it and pronounced it livable. The rest of the flock looks on in envy. For the first time we have tree swallows careening over the house grabbing insects in the new, more sunny and open space. Yay snag.

How Green IS A “Green Building” ??

Update: Since this was originally posted, Jeff Acopian kindly pointed out some inaccuracies. His family actually started looking into protecting birds from window strikes in the 1980’s. You can read more on the Birdsavers website.

Also, the American Bird Conservancy has just launched an appeal for help with spreading the word about their own ratings and endorsements for good products for homeowners and commercial buildings. A few of the products below are included. I hope you will consider a donation to help the cause!

Due to a recent upheaval in living arrangements, there’s been a dearth of posts here on Gopher Valley Journal. We retired and moved form the big City Up North to Gopher Valley permanently, and we couldn’t be happier. In the process we replaced our old double wide, aka manufactured home with a new one (also made in a factory). It is a fully eco rated Energystar® model with efficient water fixtures and lots of insulation. It also has beautiful windows and lots of light. These windows are super energy efficient but are also more reflective (think mirrors) than any other window. I knew there would be some work to do when I saw the plans and those beautiful windows.

We had sliding glass doors on a porch in the old place, and more than once birds slammed into them, prompting me to do a lot of research on birds and windows. At the time, the easiest remedy was to paint some vertical stripes with tempera paint on the glass. As funky as it looked, it worked out well and in fact they are still on one set of doors we re-purposed for an art studio. But what about the pristine and, frankly, fancy looking new ones? There was a lot more glass, and even before we moved in, bird-shaped collision marks started to appear.

The good news (well kind of): in his newest book Subirdia, Professor John Marzluff (from whom I took one of the best classes of my second undergraduate career) relates that cats are by far the biggest human-assisted killers of birds. Way more than windows. 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds are expected to die by cat in the lower 48 alone. Every year. Please, please keep your cat indoors. Please. Helpful info at the link.

The bad news: windows are the second biggest cause of bird fatality around homes. Somewhere between 250 million and almost 1 billion birds smack into glass every year, in the U.S. alone. Skyscrapers are responsible for only a fraction of that, with residences and shorter multistory buildings the worst.

What to do?? I went back to the internet for an update. Researchers have helpfully measured the exact dimensions of products that help birds see glass and avoid death and injury that I used for my previous fix. And, there are also some cool new ideas out there. I got a few more tips from the Mid-Valley Birders listserve.

Here below are the results of my search and (trial and error) product testing.

1. External screening by http://www.birdscreen.com/. Thanks to a couple of rave reviews on the birdlist I sent away for a trial amount of this flexible fabric-like screen to try on a variety of window sizes and shapes. I ended up cutting some down to fit on smaller windows that were particularly popular targets for bird strikes. This made the suction cup application a little clunky looking but the ease of installation and modification was a plus. Extremely effective and seems to be holding up to the weather, although the pipe insulation recommended to weigh the bottom down is getting fried on the hot south side. It is as see-through as a window screen. I opted for the attachment method that does not involve drilling into the siding, and it’s only useful for windows that are not on our sliding glass doors. Economical and user friendly. It can be ordered in custom sizes.

This is how Birdscreen (TM) product looks from inside

The view from inside

Birdscreen (TM) product outside

Birdscreen (TM) product outside

Treatments above rely on a weight at the bottom. You can also attach the bottom to the window with suction cups but I ended up using all of those for the multiple smaller pieces I modified from the kit. Here are the smaller window treatments. These were particularly lethal windows, and we have not had problems since adding the external screens.

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The pink tape is to keep us from hitting our noggins on the open casement window.

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2. ABC BirdTape. Sold directly by the American Bird Conservancy, this product is economical and easy to apply. It comes as a roll of tape or wider squares. You can also get long rolls of uncut wide tape. These are all designed according to research that indicates that vertical or horizontal striping or squares of a specific width and distance apart, will help birds see a window, or avoid crashing. The minimum spacing for the stripes is important: 2″ horizontally or 4″ vertically. The tape turned out to be just the thing for the expanse of glass used on our deck panels. If you’re careful, it can be repositioned if you make a mistake, and if you goof up it is not too expensive to discard the piece you have and start over. The product is translucent, so you cannot actually see through it, but it has been fine visually. Visitors often think the glass came that way, and if I had it to do over I would have it frosted like this.

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Birdtape in squares.

Birdtape in strips

Birdtape in strips

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3. Acopian BirdSavers. Another outfit that sells a product they invented just for bird protection. Their product is made  from parachute cord. This product saved us and the birds. It is by far the easiest to apply, and if you want to save money, the website offers instructions on how to make your own. It has the advantages of simplicity and minimal things to go wrong, plus it is low profile. With the amount of glass we had to cover, this was the most satisfactory. Update: A few of these stopped adhering to the siding, and since I did not want to drill into our new siding I used suction cups on a couple of windows, and on others a magnetic strip with holes drilled to hold the strings tucked behind a window flange. I am told by the company that they also offer a permanent attachment bracket that has small screws to mount a bracket which looks very satisfactory in the photos on their website.

Here is how it looks on arrival. I measured my windows and gave them the dimensions to make each one for me (essentially cutting to size and tying the knots) so all I had to do was attach them. They are suspended from a header cord attached to pieces of aluminum with heavy double stick tape on the back. The green color blends in well.IMG_4840Installed, they are effective and low profile. Although they look a bit dark in the photo looking outside, the contrast is not that harsh. The attachment detail can be seen on the product website. Although they mention attachment problems in some applications, we have had very little need to re-attach. When it really gets busy at the feeders, sometime birds perch on the cords for a few seconds!

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Birdsavers cord installed

BirdSavers cord installed, looking out

4. CollidEscape This product seemed like a great idea. It is a mesh adhesive. It was quite pricey even for some samples but I thought it might look better so I tried a few; clear for the deck panels, grey and green to match the siding. The material comes in thick, very adhesive sheets that can be ordered to size, and they will color match for you. It also comes in patterns. I was told it is the material that is applied to buses for advertising. How they get those huge pieces on a bus is beyond me.

The colored film is nearly opaque from the outside, and pretty see-through from inside, although not as transparent as any of the other materials I used, probably because the colored sheets are black on the side that adheres to the glass, plus the holes of the mesh are dense.

If I was an experienced applicator or had an extra person or two to assist it might have been easier. I tried using the methods suggested, but it was a teeth-grinding experience on a hot day. In the end I removed the clear piece I had on the deck because it wasn’t very attractive. I think these photos actually make it look better. To me it just made things look out of focus and did not enhance the glass like the BirdTape.

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In any case, after my first experience, I tried cutting one piece into the dimensions of the bird tape and applying it according to those specs. After a couple of months I decided it was too distracting and took it off.

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The one application that seems to work is a couple of windows where I got it on evenly and it blended in well. On the south side of the house (left) it helps keep the house cooler by reflecting the heat and sun. On a small bedroom window (right) the reduced light is minor. The color match is quite good.

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See below the difference between CollidEscape film and bird netting (left) and the film and BirdSavers cord (right) looking from the inside.

BirdSavers cord on left, CollidEscape film on right

BirdSavers cord on left, CollidEscape film on right

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CollidEscape left, bird netting right

These examples show that different solutions work in different areas. The main thing is to do everything possible to protect the wildlife we life with whenever we can.

Because we know better, all buildings must take into account their surroundings. Green buildings can’t be green unless they include bird protection in their design. On the positive side:

  • Some cities have laws about what kind of glass can be used in commercial buildings with birds in mind.
  • Bird-friendly glass does exist.
  • Retrofitting is always an option, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, and not only for new construction.
  • It is really great that LEED building certification includes not only glass specifications but interior and exterior lighting standards for bird protection.
  • Lighting! a whole other story that you can read about in John Marzluff’s great book and also here.

The Bipartisan Partnership Behind the Bird-Safe Building Act | Audubon

Following up on the bird protection for windows post with a positive bit of news here:   The Bipartisan Partnership Behind the Bird-Safe Building Act | Audubon.