Willow Valley Communities said the company is “exploring” ways to make their 20-story, all-glass Willow Valley Mosaic apartment building in Lancaster city safe for birds.

The Lancaster County Bird Club and others have been pressuring the senior living company, warning that without changing their approved design to use special glass or window treatments, the county’s tallest building could become a death trap for birds flying unknowingly into see-through glass that could also be reflecting the sky.

Reacting to concerns made to the company on social media and during the building review process about bird-window collisions, Willow Valley Communities spokesperson Maureen Leader told me “this is an issue we’ve been exploring, and we continue to explore it. Construction hasn’t started yet, and it’s an issue that we are still studying.”

Such bird-safe glass is not required. But Lancaster city staff raised the concern during their review of permits for Mosaic.

“Building codes adopted by the state do not require bird-friendly glass, and the city has not adopted any building codes that are stricter than the state,” said Douglas Smith, chief planner for the city.

“City staff did raise the issue as a matter of concern in spring of 2021, and the developer looked into a variety of strategies for mitigating bird collisions,” Smith said. “No requirements were made of the developer ... however, the city is supportive of the developer exploring cost-effective options.”

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Unlike humans, birds cannot recognize glass and unwittingly fly into windows or glass siding, especially when they reflect the sky, trees and landscaping. It’s been a problem at tall urban buildings around the world and, over the last five to 10 years, public efforts are increasing to make such buildings bird friendly with etched glass, screens, shades, window treatments, tilted windows and other measures during construction or through retrofits.

A Smithsonian Institution study in 2014 estimated that from 365 million to 1 billion birds are killed annually in the United States after crashing into glass and windows of any size. The highest number of deaths was from collisions in homes and buildings one to three stories high where landscaping is reflected. The death rate for tall buildings was quite high, though total numbers of mortality was lower because skyscrapers are fewer.

The only human-caused threat that kills more birds than glass collisions is feral cats and house cats that are allowed to roam outdoors. We humans can do something about both.

The state is currently evaluating proposals to add bird-collision deterrents to the 16-story Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg that houses the state Department of Environmental Protection. Several of the building’s celebrated peregrine falcons have been killed or injured by hitting windows on the structure.

The popular visitor’s center at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in northern Lancaster County a few years ago added window treatments to its 350-square-foot glass viewing area that looks out over the lake, as well as other windows.

Bird crashes that one year numbered 90 dead birds have all but disappeared, said Lauren Ferreri, manager of the Game Commission’s facility. Signs call attention to the dot decal pattern and urge visitors to do their part at their homes. “We wanted to be an example of how to prevent this,” Ferreri said.

As currently designed, the $90 million Willow Valley Mosaic building will undoubtedly and unnecessarily kill unsettling numbers of birds, experts say.

Here's how much it will cost to live in Mosaic, Willow Valley's downtown high-rise

“There’s no question. In this day and age, we need to be building buildings that aren’t bird killers,” said Christine Sheppard, director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Glass Collisions Program. “People hate being in a building that kills birds.”

“Even a clear pane of glass acts like a mirror reflecting the facing habitat and sky when covering a dark interior. Most installations are reflective killers, and it looks like your new building will be among them,” added Daniel Klem, author of the book, “Solid Air: Invisible Killer — Saving Billions of Birds From Windows,” and Sarkis Acopian professor of ornithology and conservation biology at Muhlenberg College. Since he witnessed his first bird-window strike at college in 1974, he has been studying bird-window collision studies from across the country and is considered a leading expert on the subject.

Ted Nichols II, president of the Lancaster County Bird Club, now has hope that Willow Valley will take steps to make the city’s most striking edifice safe for birds.

“I’m not here to point fingers,” Nichols said. “We are not here to stop or hinder development but to make sure building is done in a responsible way. I’d really like Lancaster to embrace the science that exists on glass and in the future do what is required to keep birds safe. We all have a responsibility to protect birds. The birds can’t talk, and they can’t even see this issue.”

Without changes to Mosaic’s exterior, the building is destined to be “the epicenter on the issue of bird-glass collisions,” predicted Nichols, who has led the push to get the state to address bird collisions at the Rachel Carson building.

The city’s two other downtown tall buildings, the Griest Building and the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square, also undoubtedly kill birds, Nichols said. But both are already built, and neither approaches the amount of glass as approved for Mosaic.

A look at life in an apartment in Mosaic, the high-rise Willow Valley Communities project in downtown Lancaster [photos, video]

“We are not nitpicking on any individual place,” he said. “This is the beginning of what we foresee as a multiyear campaign to try to get building owners in the city and surrounding county do what they can to protect birds.”

He noted that the bird club has an informal club at Willow Valley, some of whom are concerned about Mosaic’s danger to birds. He suggested the target audience to occupy Mosaic — those 55 and over — “don’t want to live in a building responsible for killing birds.”

Said bird club member Meredith Lombard, “If I designed iconic structures such as Mosaic, which could grace Lancaster County for 500 years or more, I would want my legacy to include environmentally sound ideas such as glass that birds can see and avoid, rather than my legacy to include thousands of dead birds at the base of my buildings.”

This week, the bird club formally reached out to Willow Valley Communities management, requesting a meeting to discuss solutions.

Until this week’s statement, Willow Valley Communities had been mum on the bird collision issue for Mosaic. A flurry of comments appealing to the company to use bird-safe glass or window treatments appeared on the company’s Facebook page in February 2021 without replies.

“I hope you are incorporating bird-safe glass in this project,” one resident observed. “A small effort now to help reduce these losses could have a significant impact on the number of dead birds you will have to clan up from around the building after it goes up.”

Illinois and New York city, among others, have passed laws that require bird-friendly windows on new or renovated state buildings. Federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service have begun making buildings safe for birds. The Federal Bird-Safe Buildings Act to address certain public buildings has been introduced in Congress for several years — once passing the House — but has not gained traction in the Senate.

Windows aren’t the only danger to birds presented by high-rise buildings. During migration times for many birds in the spring and fall, they, like moths, are drawn to lights on buildings.

Most birds migrate at night with the aid of the earth’s magnetic field, orientation of stars and other aids. But artificial lights cause their navigation to go haywire. They are attracted to the lights, especially during storms or weather conditions where they are flying low, sometimes hitting the buildings or lit windows. Or they may circle until they drop from exhaustion.

Nichols notes that Lancaster, due to its geographical location and nearness to the Susquehanna River, a migratory corridor, has many migrating birds pass through.

Philadelphia residents were horrified after one stormy night in October 2020 when Audubon Pennsylvania volunteers collected 400 dead or injured birds, including warblers, vireos and thrushes, around the base of the city’s tallest buildings. It’s estimated up to 1,500 migrating birds perished that night.

Incidents like that have helped drive the Lights Out program, a voluntary, nationwide effort to get cities and residents to minimize internal and external lights at night during spring and fall migrations.

Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are among the cities that have joined the effort and the Lancaster County Bird Club hopes to add Lancaster city and county residents soon.

For more information on what you can do, go online to audubon.org/lights-out-program.

For information and products to make your windows bird friendly, the American Bird Conservancy’s products and solution database lists hundreds of products. Go online to abcbirds.org/glass-collisions/products-database.

Observed Nichols: “We need to get people to understand that this is an issue and there are things they can do about it.”

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