The American Bird Conservancy estimates that as many as 1 billion avian mortalities occur each year as a result of crashes into glass, a problem the nonprofit says needs further investigation.
Sarah Fischer, a Ball State senior, is up to the task.
A double major in printmaking and biology, the Honors College student is combining her research interests and artistic skills in a unique way. Leading a group of fellow Ball State students and faculty known as the Dead Bird Society, Fischer is conducting a study on fatal bird-window incidents on campus.
Her goal is to determine which windows and buildings are the most problematic and which species account for the most deaths.
“I wanted to research the issue on campus because I’m hoping to provide insight into ways Ball State can reduce collision rates and ultimately make the campus more bird-friendly,” said Fischer, whose collegiate accolades include the Outstanding Wildlife Undergraduate Award from the North Central Chapter of The Wildlife Society, a national conservancy.
From August 2014 through May 2016, Fischer’s research documented 131 bird carcasses overall. Thirty-four bird carcasses were found outside Bracken Library, and 34 more were found outside of Worthen Arena. An additional 32 carcasses were seen outside the Architecture Building. These three buildings accounted for 75 percent of the total deaths identified within the route used for the study, which includes 12 buildings that stretch from Worthen to the Applied Technology Building. As a result, Fischer has dubbed some of the buildings “hotspots” for bird deaths on campus.
“I think part of the issue with these particular buildings might be that they have such wide panes of highly reflective glass that are problematic for birds. There also could be lights left on at night, which can attract migratory birds and lead to fatal collisions. We have not specifically tested these parameters yet, so it’s hard to say for sure; this could be an objective for future research.”
Research and art intersect
Professor of Biology Kamal Islam says Fischer’s desire to examine this issue speaks to her interest in the intersection of ecology and urban environments.
“Sarah is a talented and gifted young scientist and artist, and it’s her combination of interests that sets her apart from other students I’ve had in class,” Islam said. “Interpreting dead birds from window collisions into etchings on glass is a creative way for her to express the information she’s gathered into an art form that’s uniquely her.”
Fischer, under the guidance of printmaking professor Sarojini Johnson, said she came up with the idea to etch the birds into glass as a sort of “full circle” memorial to the birds she and sophomore aquatic biology and fisheries major Crystal Nichols have gathered so far for the study.
“It seemed like such a fitting way to blend what I do as an artist with this particular kind of research,” Fischer said, noting that the body of work she is creating will total about 40 etchings. They will serve as her senior art thesis in December. “I plan to exhibit these etchings in a gallery setting to inform the public about the issue. I think art can serve as a vessel to engage the public with wildlife conservation, and that is what I plan to do throughout my career as a biologist and artist.”
A big part of Fischer’s research for the study has been investigating which species and families of birds have the highest amount of incidents. The highest number of deaths she found involved thrushes (34 carcasses), followed by wood warblers (32 carcasses) and sparrows (24 carcasses). Of the birds collected, 39 species of 16 different families were represented.
Nichols said being a surveyor for the project has been a unique opportunity. “After we’d find a bird that collided with a window, I enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure out what bird species it was. Sarah always encouraged me and would give me hints to help if I guessed the wrong one at first.”
Plans for the future
Fischer said she hopes the Dead Bird Society will keep conducting research if another student has interest in continuing the project. She hopes to present the group’s findings to Ball State officials before she graduates in December.
“It’d be great if the university would be open to making some changes at the most problematic hotspots,” she said. “There are a lot of different methods that can be used to reduce avian collisions, such as incorporating UV-reflective glass (birds can sense ultraviolet light) or deploying UV-reflective ‘bird tape’ on windows.”
In the long term, Fischer said, one of her professional goals is “to study songbird ecology and to create publicly accessible artwork based on my research.”