Originally Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2013, 11:28 pm
Last Updated: Dec. 21, 2013, 11:40 pm

Augustana researcher's project goes multinational

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By Anthony Watt, awatt@qconline.com

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Photo: Paul Colletti/pcolletti@qconline.com
Augustana College professor Stephen Hager stands in front of floor-to-ceiling widows on the school's campus in Rock Island on Tuesday, December 17, 2013. Professor Hager is leading a study about birds colliding with windows in the hope of improving avian conservation efforts through new building designs.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti/pcolletti@qconline.com
Augustana professor Stephen Hager

ROCK ISLAND — An Augustana College research project meant to gather more comprehensive data about bird-window collisions has gone multinational.

In 2010, Augustana professor Stephen Hager and a group of students and faculty began monitoring 20 buildings picked randomly in Rock Island and Moline. They were watching for dead birds close to the buildings, live birds in the area around them and recording the amount of window surface in each structure.

They gathered enough data to create a map predicting where birds were in the most danger of colliding with windows. After that, the plan was to gather more data and test the accuracy of that map with more field research this year, but that plan has changed.

"We have expanded our scope in this project to make bigger maps," Dr. Hager, who has a Ph.D. in biology, said earlier this month.

Researchers in about 20 sites across the United States and in Canada and Mexico now are gathering data for the project, he said. The first season at the wider scale — a trial to iron out methods for the researchers — has just been completed

"Now we're taking this to the continental scale," Dr. Hager said.

It is the first study of its type to this degree, he said.The advantage of the broader scope is the ability to find data on birds from many different areas. The original study was limited to the birds likely to be found in the Quad-Cities area.

In each of the areas targeted for study, the participants monitor six buildings of different types in different settings from heavily urbanized, to more natural, he said.

The data from the initial field season still is being analyzed, but there do seem to be some patterns, he said. The main one so far is size of the building -- the bigger the building and the more windows it has, the bigger the threat it may pose.

Dr. Hager said the 2010 study also provided information: Birds here usually were hitting buildings with lots of windows near sizable green space which provides a bird habitat.

Only certain species were hitting windows, and most of the dead birds were yearlings or younger, he said. Among the dead birds, robins and doves were some of the more common.

No sparrows and pigeons were found, although live specimens were commonly observed during the research, he said. This suggests vulnerability among specific groups of birds.

The body count from the first study was small, he said. There were 34 birds from about 16 species, he said. The group observed about 72 species of birds during the Quad-Cities survey. The small number of dead birds suggests that window collisions, at least for the study area, may not be as bad as some think.

Before the Augustana group began its research, other studies tended to be limited in scope, he said. Usually, they focused on one, two or a small cluster of buildings where dead birds were being observed, and often were done during the spring or fall, with little attention paid to other parts of the year.

The events that led to the expansion of the project happened in the courtroom, Dr. Hager said.

An environmental group recently sued a property owner whose buildings in Canada were reportedly killing a large number of birds, he said.

The group lost, but the case set a precedent: Such lawsuits are a potential for property owners, he said. This has raised questions among developers and architects as to how to protect themselves from litigation.

With that in mind, he made a proposal to the Ecological Research as Education Network, which uses National Science Foundation funds to help promote ecological research, and got the organization's backing.

Comprehensive data like what the project hopes to gather could help governments and private concerns needing to establish guidelines for construction and design, he said.

Part of that could include showing what is and is not necessary in specific areas, he said. There are people that think bird-safe design rules need to be uniform across the board, but what is applicable in one area may not be applicable in another, depending on the kind of birds to be found there.

"Our work has the potential to affect policy," he said.