Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant

Daniel Klem
Daniel Klem, a genuine giant in ornithology and bird conservation. Photo from in April 2004.

One of my favorite quotes is from Isaac Newton, from 1676, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The idea behind the quote goes back even further, at least to the 12th Century, credited to one Bernard of Chartres. It shouldn't be surprising that a scientist would generously give credit to the many scientists who discovered all the underpinnings for his own discoveries—that’s exactly how science is supposed to work.

Unfortunately, attribution of credit where credit is due doesn’t always come naturally to our species. We humans really do love to be first to discover new things. An up-and-coming graduate student or assistant professor has to compete to get grants and tenure—taking a bit of credit for great ideas that were actually inspired or outright taken from others is a terrible, if terribly human, thing to do. And institutions and organizations that depend on grants and supporter donations have a vested interest to blow their own horns.

This issue came home to me this week when I was thinking about what we know and don't know about bird-killing glass, and when we learned it. When we moved into our house on Peabody Street in 1981, we immediately discovered that our dining room window—the one that looked out on our best bird feeders—was a bird killer. We tried moving feeders around and putting various things on the window, but although the number of kills went down, every season the window killed at least some birds.

When I started producing "For the Birds" in 1986, I mentioned those bird kills at our window and some strategies I’d used to reduce it. I also started researching the problem in more depth. There were several papers mentioning that the studies were based on carcasses retrieved at windows, but just about every paper I could find that focused on bird-window collisions as a conservation problem to be solved was written by someone named Daniel Klem from Muhlenberg College, who started researching the issue in the 1970s. A couple of his articles in 1990 in the Journal of Field Ornithology titled “Bird injuries, cause of death, and recuperation from collisions with windows” and “Collisions between birds and windows: mortality and prevention” had a few suggestions for solving the problem based on studies he and his students conducted at Muhlenberg College. One suggestion was to set feeders directly on or within a foot of the glass; Russ and my kids immediately set to work making me a lovely tray feeder affixed to our dining room window frame as a Mother's Day gift. Sure enough, the deaths at our worst window ended.

Virtually every scientific paper I could find about bird-window collisions had the name Daniel Klem attached to it. He’d written a 14-page in-depth article in 1989 for The Wilson Bulletin simply titled “Bird-window collisions.” In 1991, his paper, “Glass and bird kills: an overview and suggested planning and design methods of preventing a fatal hazard” was included in the proceedings from a National Symposium on Urban Wildlife titled “Wildlife Conservation in Metropolitan Environments.” In 2004, Dr. Klem was primary author of a paper, “Effects of window angling, feeder placement, and scavengers on avian mortality at plate glass,” published in The Wilson Bulletin. In 2009, he was lead author on two papers, “Architectural and landscape risk factors associated with bird-glass collisions in an urban environment” and “Preventing bird-window collisions,” both published in the newly-renamed Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

These are just a few of the titles of papers he authored on the subject. When he submitted a paper to The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists' Union (now the American Ornithological Society), it was rejected because so many of his citations were for his own papers—not because he's an egomaniac or because no one else could replicate his research but because no one else was even trying to. [Since original publication of this post, I've also learned that his papers on the subject were rejected by The Auk because major scientists said it was too minor an issue to be worthy of inclusion!]

When I was researching my book 101 Ways to Help Birds in 2004 and 2005 and called ornithologists from several research and conservation institutions, I was told that window kills affected trivial numbers of individual birds compared to habitat loss on breeding and wintering ranges, which destroy whole populations. (Some of these people were still claiming the same about domestic cat predation on birds!) Habitat loss is truly a fundamental issue, of course, but hardly the only bird-related conservation issue.

Around the time Klem presented at the 2009 International Partners in Flight Conference a paper, “Avian Mortality at Windows: The Second Largest Human Source of Bird Mortality on Earth,” the national press coverage inspired a critical mass of scientists to start paying attention: for several years Klem had been making data-based estimates of the annual kill of birds at windows, claiming the number to be in the hundreds of millions to a billion birds a year in the US alone. After the national press ran with the figure, many scientists pooh-poohed or tried to disprove those high numbers until independent studies confirmed Klem’s estimates—at that point, some scientists seemed to be saying their own studies were the first to show window kills were a significant problem!

By then, Dr. Klem was working with some architects and glass manufacturers to conduct studies to see how the type of glass and window placement could reduce collisions. His painstaking work kept building up the foundation of what we know about window collisions even as scientists at well-known research and conservation organizations and institutions (including some I usually support) were finally starting to conduct their own studies to the field. That is how scientists are supposed to work—running with ideas they get from one another. If it took three decades before other scientists started jumping en masse into this important line of research, it finally happened thanks to Dr. Klem. But now some of these institutions and organizations were implying that they were the first to recognize and research this horrible problem.

It was disconcerting last week to get invited to a webinar about bird collisions and ways we can minimize them. The description said the presenter had "discovered" in 2009 that there was "virtually no science or basis for most recommendations.” We obviously have long needed more studies affirming Daniel Klem's discoveries and collaborating with him on strategies for dealing with the problem. Instead, what we're getting are researchers new to the topic cavalierly dismissing the mountain of foundational research he's spent his career building! I am most seriously displeased.

The goal of science is always to learn ever more. But in our scramble to see farther than others, it's a good idea to acknowledge those giants we're trampling over.

(The entire text of the window-collision entry of my 2006 book 101 Ways to Help Birds is reproduced here. Most of the photos of window treatments were taken as I researched my book, years before conservation organizations were paying attention to the issue. My information about this issue was based on Daniel Klem's research. I wonder if literature searches have gone out of vogue?)