KOKOMO, Ind. – About 1 billion birds die each year crashing into windows. At Indiana University Kokomo, Lina Rifai is doing her best to save them — one bird at a time.
Two to three times a week, Rifai, associate professor of vertebrate biology, walks the perimeter of campus buildings looking for injured or dead birds, which are treated or taken to a rehabilitation center nearby.
“This way, they have a chance at least, when you take them to a rehabber,” she said. “We know we have birds hitting the glass, and until we can do something about it, we can help the injured.”
This is work beneficial to everyone — not just birds.
“They are part of our food chain,” she said. “Some of them are important in pollination, and some help with seed distribution. A lot of times we are able to save a whole ecosystem because people have saved the birds.”
She’s found five injured birds this semester, and 80 for the year. Two of the five were able to be released after a stay at the rehabilitation center.
Not all of those injured require rehabilitation. When a bird found appears stunned but shows no other signs on injury, it is placed in an area to recover and then be released.
“I can put it in a carton, something dry and cool, not too different from the temperature outside,” she said. “Being where it is dark and quiet for a few hours helps it get over the shock.”
Students in her ornithology class assist in watching for dead or injured birds. Some students have completed internships at avian rehabilitation centers, and can provide basic first aid when they find one that is hurt.
She’s not just helping those hurt — Rifai also is gathering data to make recommendations for simple changes to campus buildings, to make glass less reflective and attractive to birds.
“The main thing is to reduce the reflection on the windows,” Rifai said. “Anyone can do it. If you have vertical blinds, just have them down. You can have them open, but once you have a pattern, they will see that and won’t try to fly through.”
Because songbirds often migrate at night, and are attracted to light, some cities have instituted a lights out program during migration, with the modest solution of asking building owners and managers to turn off excessive lights at night during migration season.
At the 9/11 tribute in New York City, which consists of dozens of 7,000-watt bulbs that can reach up to four miles in the sky, volunteers scan the beams and count birds, alerting museum staff when 1,000 or more birds are circling. They can also see large flocks on doppler radar. Turning off the lights for 20 minutes gives the birds a chance to clear the area.
The problem is not that birds don’t see the windows, Rifai added.
“Birds have really good eyesight,” she said. “They see the reflection of a tree in the glass, and think there’s a tree over there, and it’s a clear path. They fly full blast, head on into it, which is why their head injuries are so severe.”
Songbirds use a magnetic sense and movement of the stars to navigate at night.
“They’re pretty amazing, but when there is a light down below, they will fly towards it, and don’t see the window until it’s too late,” Rifai said.
Even with their best efforts, they can’t save every one.
“You have to be prepared when you have all these birds coming in, that some will die,” she said. “At least we’ve given them a chance at recovery.”
Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.