Maryland's Howard County Council passed a bird-safe building mandate last month, the second law of its kind on the East Coast, following New York City's legislation that passed in December.
Howard County is home to hummingbirds, cardinals, woodpeckers and doves, among many other bird species, all of which stop over during annual migration. When they land in unfamiliar territory to rest or find food, they often confuse reflective glass as passable space — resulting in fatal collisions that take the lives of up to a billion birds annually across North America, according to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC).
Buildings from one to three stories tall account for 44% of all bird fatalities, ABC reports. Howard County is chockfull of buildings in this size range, said Mark Southerland, legislative director at Safe Skies Maryland.
Council Chair Deb Jung, who introduced the legislation, called the bill "non-controversial," noting the significant support it gathered from environmental organizations and sponsors. The Council considered offering incentives in the bill, but ultimately decided on a mandate, Jung said.
"We determined that it was easier to fold the requirement into our green building laws here," Jung said.
New York builders prepare for mandate
Former New York City Councilmember Rafael Espinal sponsored the city's bird-safe mandate, drafting the legislation as part of a bigger plan to make the city’s buildings more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
"The Audubon Society alerted me to the fact that thousands of birds collided with our city’s buildings each year,” he said. "From my experience as a legislator, I knew that initiatives like this are not prioritized by building developers, even if subsidies are involved. I believed a mandate would be the best way to have the highest impact and not disrupt construction costs."
Builders were given a one-year grace period before the mandate takes effect at the end of 2020. "Going forward this December, new buildings will be required to have a green roof and bird protection glass or film," said Espinal. "Many companies have already begun doing this as a practice."
There has also been movement in Congress to mandate federal bird-friendly standards through the Bird-Safe Buildings Act of 2019, but it's stalled, so the onus remains on municipalities to move this practice forward.
Elizabeth Beardsley, senior policy counsel at United States Green Building Council, said that several other municipalities have issued bird-friendly construction mandates, including San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and a handful of towns in Illinois and Minnesota.
Most bird-friendly designs will wind up saving a company money over the long term due to energy savings from the design, Beardsley said. A bird-friendly design equates to reducing unnecessary lighting or reflective glass, and even takes into consideration the nearby plants, trees and shrubbery.
When it came time to expand New York City's Jacob Javits Center in 2016, for instance, architects studied a wide variety of bird-friendly glass. They settled on glass with a pattern of dots that not only protected birds, but increased energy efficiency. The architects also added a new green roof that attracts foraging and nesting birds. The result: bird deaths dropped by 90% and energy consumption by 25%, according to Southerland.
"This is the most popular pilot credit because it’s such a tangible one," said Beardsley. "People see birds all around them and see saving them as something positive. It’s much easier to visualize than something like an energy mandate."