Flying High

January 27th, 2023 by Nathan Hobbs

The Ascension of Bird-Safety Films

By Chris Collier

As many as one billion birds die each year from building collisions. The National Audubon Society says collision-based fatalities account for 2 to 9% of all birds in North America in any given year, making “building strikes second only to feral and free-roaming cats as a source of human-caused avian mortality in the United States.” Daytime crashes occur when birds mistake reflections of open skies or nearby vegetation for the real thing. Window film suppliers and dealers have come to the rescue of their feathered friends.

Pushing for Change

In November 2022, Northwestern University’s Associated Student Government’s Sustainability Committee urged the University to apply patterned plastic film on windows at Mudd Science and Engineering Library. It’s the site of more than 14% of annual bird deaths and injuries on campus, according to data from Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. Created in October 2022, the “Petition to Make Mudd Library Bird Safe” had more than 500 signatures as of November 14, 2022. Educational institutions are just one segment of society seeking answers to the avian fatalities.

Veteran Film Team serves the Washington, D.C., area with a squad of more than five installers. Owner Seth Clarke and his team completed a bird-safety film installation spanning several thousand square feet at a medical research company in 2021. The project took three days and incorporated two installers.

“They had a long walkway with glass on both sides,” says Clarke, whose team applied Solyx’s SX-BSFD Frost Dot Bird Safety Film. “This probably spanned a couple hundred yards. Birds were running into one side thinking they could go through to the other side. They were looking for a solution.”

Home Window Tinting and Commercial (HWTC) in Lewisville, Texas, halted bird collisions at finance company Fannie Mae’s corporate headquarters in Plano, Texas, in July 2018. Similar to Veteran Film Team’s project, this application addressed issues at a walkway between the parking garage and the company’s headquarters. HWTC’s five-person team installed 1,810 square feet of film during the project. Solyx’s SX-BSFH Horizontal Pattern Bird Safety film was the product of choice.

“Five or six birds a day were dying,” HWTC president Tim Miller says. “The installation took us about a day and a half with the weather. These pieces [of film] were quite large. They were 135 inches tall.”

Nature Lovers

Mike Burke has worked in the window film industry for 33 years. His company, Sun Stoppers, has more than 68 locations in 19 states and offers residential and commercial tint and decorative film services as well as automotive tint, paint protection and ceramic coatings. In March/April, one of the company’s locations will install 5,000 square feet of bird-safety film at an environmental center in the Charlotte, N.C., area.

“They have over 50 bird deaths a year—birds that fly into the [reflective] glass because it looks like more of the woods,” says Sun Stoppers project manager Audry Barber. Before the project start date, the environmental center detailed high-impact areas on the building’s ground, second and third floors. Areas of impact were classified by: no strikes, low, medium and high. The building’s glass was chosen initially because it reduces interior heating from sunlight. Unfortunately, the glass is also highly reflective, increasing the chances the birds will mistake a window for the forest behind them.

According to the center’s research, the building’s glass affects the following species: four different types of thrushes (Swainson’s, Hermit, Gray-cheeked and Wood), several types of warblers and others. Nearly all species documented to have died are declining continent-wide. Bird-safety film is increasingly relevant in the commercial sector as well as the residential sector. Mitten Windows in Grand Rapids, Mich., completed a 200 square-feet project for a nature-loving family in July 2022.

“They have multiple bird feeders in the front and the back. In the front of the house, they have three sliding windows,” says Mitten Windows CEO Josh Laraway. “They were like, ‘We love watching the birds, but they’re constantly running into the glass.’”

Life-Saving Solutions

For biologist Dominique Waddoup, founder and CEO of Austria’s BirdShades, window film is a preventative.

“Our mission is to save birds; to make the sky a safe place for birds to fly,” Waddoup says. “Dying from window collisions is a needless death.”

Studies found steep death tolls for birds striking large glassy buildings, specifically those in “less urbanized pockets of North America that tend to host more migratory birds,” the National Audubon Society adds. Working with co-founder and material science expert Christoph Cerny, Waddoup aims to turn the tide. She witnessed the turbing trend firsthand when studying animal behavior and biology at The University of Graz in Austria.

“At my university, there was a glass corridor with lots of bird-window collisions,” Waddoup says. “I wanted to find a solution because there were so many birds [crashing] within two months. I went to the university to take action, but they wouldn’t accept any of the visible solutions because it was a very architectural, fancy glass corridor.”

Waddoup began prototyping Bird Shades in 2016, later founding the company in 2019. Waddoup and Cerny developed an adhesive film designed to be applied to window glass. It’s advertised as invisible to humans, but birds can see its ultraviolet-reflective pattern.

“I wanted to give people the ability to conserve nature at their doorstep or their window because glass has such a big impact,” Waddoup says. “It’s everywhere now.”

Waddoup is correct—glass is everywhere. USGlass magazine, a sister publication to Window Film magazine, has reported on the product extensively. In one particular case, hundreds of migrating birds died in September 2021 after a collision at the World Trade Center Complex.

“Glass in the built environment is always dangerous to birds and unfortunately, birds are killed by collisions with glass every day. When bad weather brings birds down and lights bring them in, danger and mortality are increased,” says Christine Sheppard, American Bird Conservancy’s Bird Collisions campaign director.

“Turning off unnecessary lights can prevent bird deaths,” Sheppard adds. “The problem here [at the World Trade Center Complex] was a ‘perfect storm’ —high numbers of birds aloft, a storm bringing them close to the built environment, lights preventing them from navigating. And then glass waiting for them first thing in the morning.”

Installation Insight

“I was installing by myself, and a nice gust took a piece [of film] and it was a quarter mile down the road,” says Clarke, citing weather as a crucial variable during installations.

Bird-safety film is installed on the exterior of buildings, presenting several challenges for installers.

“That’s the holdup with exterior film,” Clarke adds. “You’ve got three things going against you: rain, temperature and wind … Know when to call it. I’ve been out on exterior film jobs where you have to get it done, but the elements are not suitable. You have to know when to press pause.”

HWTC president Miller slotted five installers for the July 2018 project at Fannie Mae’s corporate headquarters in Plano, Texas. The pieces of film were 135 inches tall and required extra manpower.

“That’s why we have those extra guys,” Miller says. “You can’t send two guys with how big those windows are. You’ve got to have extra hands … You want everybody on the same page.”

Advising newcomers to the product, Clarke says, “You have to start somewhere, and you never know until you try it. If you’ve never installed exterior film, give it a try at your house. [Keep in mind] alignment and the factors of wind, temperature and rain.”

A New Money Maker

The window film industry contains a diverse mix of services and products spanning the automotive, residential and commercial sectors. Now, bird-safety film joins a list including solar, decorative, security, and paint protection film as yet another potential revenue stream.

“When a product works, it should be sold and advertised,” Miller says. “ … Birds are a big part of the ecosystem, and we can’t have them running into windows. We need to make it so that people know about [the service].”

Burke of Sun Stoppers says, “The projects will be bigger because they’re going to be the entire exterior of a building. It’s not just going in and doing a couple of decorative film jobs inside of a building. It’s not just going to be solar film on a base, one-level floor. This is usually going to be bigger buildings.”

Chris Collier is the editor of Window Film magazine.

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