Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Duluth International Airport's Hazardous Windows

American Redstart and Tennessee Warbler

I went down to the Twin Cities this past weekend to join the protest against the proposed Vikings stadium windows. The clear glass is guaranteed to kill birds—at least hundreds and more likely thousands every year. 

Ironically, as I was traipsing 150 miles away to talk about one glass project, birds were dying in collisions with glass right here at home, at the newly constructed Duluth Airport. On Wednesday, I got an email from Penny Schwarze, who wrote,

I…wondered if you knew that the new Duluth airport terminal also has problem windows. I arrived there on a flight about ten days ago and was very upset to see the bodies of many birds (about twenty, I'd guess) on the ground below the windows. As you said, seeing corpses completely ruins any aesthetic experience one might hope to have. 
I assume others have noticed this problem, but I don't know if anything is being done about it. So that's why I'm getting in touch with you. Do you have any information about this? If not, what do you think a good next step would be?
Penny added,

The date and time were Sunday, Sept. 21, around 2:30 p.m - a sunny day. They were small birds - yellow/light brown, as I recall (I'm not a birder). Although I'm not an emotional person, I tear up thinking about it...

Those birds were almost certainly mostly warblers, though other migrating songbirds were probably also involved. These Neotropical migrants travel by night, and lighted structures jutting into their airspace disorient them, often luring them to their deaths. I’m embarrassed to admit that the airport construction has been completely off my radar, even though I should have registered that the design was going to be a bird killer from the start. I’d contacted County Commissioner Steve O’Neill regarding what we could do about glass in the design of the huge new Maurice’s building in downtown Duluth, but that was just before he got sick—since his devastating illness and death, and my own general busyness, I’ve not been paying attention to either project.

But what CAN we do? At this late date, the only way we can protect birds with the airport already constructed would be to cut the lighting visible from the outside at night, when migrating birds are passing through, and add netting to reduce the impact on birds that do hit by night or by day, when thousands of tiny birds are passing through in low vegetation and hit glass that is reflecting plants and sky. The trick is that the airport will never do this simply because it’s the right thing to do. And the US Fish and Wildlife Service has a long track record of not getting involved in these issues. In 2011, a wind facility in West Virginia killed over 500 birds in a single night because of gross negligence in leaving outside lights on at a substation against clearly stated rules. This was the third time a major kill had happened at that facility, and yet, for the third time, they weren’t fined a penny.

People are so tired of being constantly angry about so very many issues swirling through our lives. Ebola, engaging in an all-new war in the Middle East, climate change, uncertainties about jobs being outsourced—with so much anger and fear about so much, people feel powerless to change anything at all. Yet ironically, it’s that very sense of powerlessness that makes us powerless. In the 70s, individuals working together forced Congress and President Nixon to enact the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, and end the war in Vietnam. Now we don’t work together, and too many organizations, including those that do some good, seize on every problem more to solicit contributions than to actually work on solving that problem.

I’m just one little voice, unconnected formally to any organization, and without a Ph.D. or other formal credentials. On the one hand, that makes me an easy target when corporations and government regulators disagree with me. On the other hand, I am not following anyone’s agenda—my only goal for most of my adult life has been to speak for the birds, as honestly and fairly as I can. And I guess that’s really all I can do here.

I don’t have many opportunities to get over to the airport, or downtown Duluth, but I’m asking that anyone who comes across dead birds in Duluth take photos—if it’s our high-tech world causing birds so many problems, we might as well use the high tech we keep right in our pockets to document the destruction. 

Send the photos to me at, with the date and place you took them, and I’ll post every one at I’ll limit this site for now to Duluth bird collisions. Documenting the kill in an absolutely accurate albeit dramatic way is the only way we’re ever going to get the people who make these decisions to pay attention.