Students saving birds, one window at a time

Posted on September 19, 2022

Windows of the Sullivan Science Building.

When doctoral student Megan Damico first arrived on the UNC Greensboro campus, she started finding dead birds. Hummingbirds, house finches, and gray catbirds lay crumpled on the ground. Their numbers were the highest near the Sullivan Science Building.

She realized the birds were dying after flying into windows. An avid birder and nature lover, she wanted to do something to help.

Damico, a PhD candidate in the UNCG Biology department, is studying Environmental Health Sciences, a field focused on understanding the world around us and its consequences on our well-being.

“I work in Dr. Kasie Raymann’s lab. My research focuses on how different environmental and genetic factors affect what bacteria exist in the honeybee gut microbiome,” she says.

Damico is also a member of UNCG Audubon Birders and Conservationists (ABCs).

“Nature has always struck me as being profound. It is something so beautiful and precious,” she says. “When I see things like birds hitting windows and dying because we as humans aren’t doing anything to help them, it frustrates me. There are ways we can solve this, no-brainers.”

Damico conferred with students from around the state and Canada who are working to protect birds from window accidents. They advised her to continue surveying for data.

Fallen bird lies on the sidewalk after flying into a window.
Damico has posted photos of birds who had flown into windows to raise awareness.

“I kept finding fallen birds and posting pictures on Twitter. I wanted to start a fire within undergrads to show them how you can be a community-involved scientist and enact change,” she says. “I hope to destroy the narrative of a scientist just sitting inside a lab all day.”

She kept surveying and studying her data to find out if the bird deaths were migration-related or a year-round issue and where the major problem areas are.

The Sullivan Building turned out to be one. Its highly reflective windows are located next to the front entrance near large, leafy trees. “When birds fly toward the windows, all they see is the reflection of a nice, enticing habitat,” Damico says.

After determining that the Sullivan building is a primary culprit, she applied for and was awarded a Green Fund startup grant along with PhD student Melanie Sadler, who is studying the reproductive success of several cavity nesting bird species.

The solution they came up with is simple: UV reflective stickers. “They are small circular dots you place on the outside of windows: long strips of circles. It shows birds that a window is there.”

“We have a little bit of money for retrofitting some of the Sullivan windows now. We need to raise more funds to buy a lot more stickers. The building is a having a major impact on birds, and it has a lot of windows,” Damico says.

Other buildings on campus need to be retrofitted, as well, though not all of the windows are problematic. Some are too reflective, making it appear to birds as though there is habitat space straight ahead, and others are too clear, so birds don’t realize the glass is there.

University leaders were happy with the sticker retrofit solution, and have been helpful in general, Damico says. UNCG prioritizes sustainability. In fact, it is recognized as one of the most environmentally-friendly universities in the U.S. by the Princeton Review, with high ratings from AASHE’s STARS and the Times Higher Ed’s Impact Rankings for meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. 

It is fitting that Greensboro students are saving birds. T. Gilbert Pearson Audubon, one of first founders of the Audubon Society, was a Greensboro native. “He was influential in making sure birds were represented here,” Damico says.

Looking to the future, Damico is writing protocols for the university to use as they add new buildings to campus. “The hope is to make buildings more friendly to birds, and more sustainable as well,” she says.

“This is something that could be beautiful.”

Written by Jane Bornhorst, Manning Words, Inc.


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