Skokie tower proposal shows why buildings must be made safer for migrating birds

Throughout the Chicago area, too few rules are in place that require buildings to be avian-friendly.

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This image roughly shows what the Carvana Tower in Skokie would look like. The pictured version is nine stories; the current proposal calls for 14.

This image roughly shows what the Carvana Tower in Skokie would look like. The pictured version is nine stories; the current proposal calls for 14.

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A vote on Monday by the Skokie Village Board tells us the Chicago area is not doing enough to protect birds.

The board gave the go-ahead to construction of a 14-story Carvana illuminated glass tower next to a forest preserve and amid a major migratory bird flyway. Ornithologists fear the tower, designed to showcase level after level of automobiles to anyone passing by, will lead to many unnecessary bird deaths.

The village board should reconsider its vote when the ordinance comes up for another reading on Feb. 22.

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Unfortunately, the Carvana tower is not an isolated problem. Throughout the Chicago area, too few rules are in place that require buildings to be bird-friendly.

This isn’t just about bird safety. Bird watching is the one of the nation’s most popular outdoor activities. It is a major source of tourism for the Chicago area, which has an extraordinary wealth of avian sightings.

A report from 2019 found nearly 3 billion birds have disappeared across North America since 1970 — a 29% decline. Collisions with buildings are a significant cause of bird deaths. People must do better to protect a vital part of our ecosystem.

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How you can help birds

  • Protect birds from glass collisions, which contribute to more than a billion bird deaths a year in the United States. Birds see glass differently than humans, especially if vegetation is reflected in windows. Safety film, special micro-filament curtains or decals can warn birds of glass.
  • Avoid toxic pesticides. One seed coated with a neonicotinoid insecticide is enough to kill a song bird, and even less can harm a bird’s reproduction.
  • Keep cats indoors when possible, especially during migratory times. Cats living in the wild and pets allowed to roam outdoors kill billions of birds in the continental U.S. each year.
  • Plant bird- and pollinator-friendly native plants in your yard.
  • Recycle and reduce waste to keep trash, including plastics, out of aquatic environments.

Sources: American Bird Conservancy, Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The proposed Carvana tower in Skokie is not a structure anyone really needs. It is sort of a combination of a brightly-lit billboard and a vending machine with cars. Customers can buy an auto online, then show up to watch it come down from the tower on an elevator. As originally designed, the proposed tower could hardly be a better bird death trap. Its illumination would have attracted birds, which would have flown right into its glass sides.

After bird supporters protested, Carvana agreed to cover the glass for the first 60 feet from the ground, with a patterned screening to warn birds of the presence of glass. It also agreed to turn off the tower illumination after 11 p.m. during seasonal migrations.

For its part, Skokie said it would monitor bird deaths at Carvana and an adjoining building for a year.

Those moves are all to the good. But Carvana should cover all 114 feet of the tower. And bird supporters point out that Carvana should use a more effective, if more expensive, pattern to deter birds.

Most important, the dispute over the tower raises the question: Why weren’t bird-protective measures already required in Skokie and other communities before Carvana came to town?

Ineffective ordinance

At one point, Chicago was a leader in bird safety. The city introduced the first “Lights Out” program in the nation, in which building owners turn off lights during migratory times to limit the number of birds killed by smacking into glass. Chicago was the second city to sign the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Urban Bird Treaty,” which brings organizations together to create bird-friendly environments.

Now Chicago is slipping behind.

New York and Madison, Wisconsin, have enacted stronger bird-protection ordinances, while Chicago has yet to put into practice a Bird Safe Building Ordinance it enacted on Mar. 27, 2019. The ordinance called for adding bird safety to a sustainability checklist for new buildings, but so far that has not been put in practice, conservationists say.

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A bill introduced Jan. 31 in the Legislature would encourage building owners to eliminate some types of lighting and turn off lights from midnight to 7 a.m. in ecologically sensitive areas during migratory seasons.

Because of its location at the center of bird migrations, Chicago, with its confusing illumination and vast amounts of glass, was ranked by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology in 2019 as the nation’s No. 1 threat to migratory birds.

Every time a new building goes up, it ought to be designed with bird safety in mind. Owners of existing buildings should do what they can to protect birds.

For eons, birds migrated through the area, taking advantage of its shoreline, marshes, waterways and trees. Now both migratory and native birds are confronted with confusing lights and glass.

Building owners and designers must reduce those hazards as much as they can.

bird_decline_9_20_19.jpg

Some bird species populations in the Chicago region have have declined in recent years.

SOURCE: Bird Conservation Network

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