The Volunteers of Project Safe Flight By Sophie Butcher

Spring and fall are incredible seasons for New York City birders, with an abundance of exciting migratory bird species travelling through our City. But as some people look up to admire the dazzling array of migrants, some are also looking down, seeing a very different bird story.

An Ovenbird found deceased by a Project Safe Flight volunteer last spring, a victim of a window collision in downtown Manhattan. In total, Project Safe Flight volunteers found 94 birds of 31 different species in the spring of 2018.

New York City is located at a geographic nexus of the Atlantic Flyway bird migration route, which millions of birds follow each year on their long travels between their northern nesting grounds and southern wintering grounds. Our City’s surprising diversity of natural habitat provides these birds with a nice pit stop—a place for them to rest and refuel before continuing on.

But for many birds, it’s also where their journeys end. Two major challenges confront birds migrating through New York City: highly reflective glass buildings and light pollution drawing birds to buildings. NYC Audubon estimates that between 90,000 and 230,000 birds are killed yearly in New York City due to window collisions.

To help understand the causes behind urban bird collisions and identify ways to prevent them, NYC Audubon launched in 1997 the citizen science program, Project Safe Flight (PSF). Starting out with only a few dedicated volunteers that year, PSF has now expanded to a team of over a dozen passionate volunteers who each fall and spring monitor collision hotspots around Manhattan.

Project Safe Flight volunteers are assigned a specific route to follow once a week during spring and fall migration seasons to look for dead or injured birds.

These volunteers are from many different backgrounds—bankers, psychologists, teachers, activists, retirees—but they all believe our City’s birds deserve better protection. They wake up at the crack of dawn and head to some of Manhattan’s most problematic glass buildings to search for dead and injured birds. Injured birds are brought to animal care centers or rehabilitators and are released in the wild after their recovery. Dead birds are collected and transferred to various natural history museums and research institutions.

All the collected birds (dead or injured) are entered in NYC Audubon's D-bird.org database, providing a powerful tool for understanding the geography and dynamics of urban bird collisions. With this science-based knowledge, we can effectively advocate for bird-friendly building design. Neither glamorous nor easy work, PSF volunteers are motivated to participate in the name of science, knowing their diligent data collection will be instrumental in making the City a safer place for our birds.

Over the course of last spring, I had the pleasure of accompanying and documenting PSF volunteers on their morning routes as they carried out their meticulous and vital work. The photographs in this piece offer a glimpse into the lives and work of these stalwart PSF volunteers, who are critical in helping NYC Audubon understand the causes of bird collisions in New York City.

John Thieroff, an avid birder, enjoys the citizen science aspect of PSF: “The data that results from tracking these routes regularly is useful in a variety of ways. It’s a consolation to know that some good comes out of the fact that not every bird completes migration successfully.”

Jess Powers, a communications director for the Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY, finds that PSF has opened her eyes to the surprising nature of New York City: "Not only is it nice to just get out and walk outside, I now pay attention to the world differently, I see more of the natural beauty New York has to offer."

Cynthia Guile, a psychologist, carefully approaches a stunned Ovenbird. After it rests in the paper bag for about 20 minutes, it is released into a small park nearby. Says Guile, “There’s usually not a happy ending for the birds I find, so it feels wonderful when there’s a bird I can help return to its life.”

Longtime volunteer Gunda Narang logs her findings, noting time, weather, location, species if known, and condition of bird (dead, injured, or stunned). She volunteers for PSF because she loves nature and knows that these data are essential to initiate legal changes to make our City safer for birds.

Mia Feldman, a landscape architecture student, started volunteering with PSF after moving from Pittsburgh to New York City. Mia’s work with NYC Audubon is a big part of what inspired her to pursue a career designing and advocating for both human and nonhuman animals in urban spaces.

See the works of Sophie Butcher and Annie Novak this April

Bird Alert: An Exhibition Featuring the Works of Sophie Butcher and Annie Novak

Thursday, April 25, 5-8pm, at Kings County Brewers Collective (KCBC). Doors open at 5pm. Panel discussion with artists, NYC Audubon conservation staff, and Project Safe Flight volunteers begins at 7pm.

Join us at KCBC during spring migration for an evening of art and conservation centered on migratory bird collisions. Sophie Butcher is a photographer and photo editor based in Brooklyn. Her photographs document the dedicated volunteers behind Project Safe Flight, celebrating the volunteers and also bringing awareness to an important environmental issue. Annie Novak is an author, illustrator, and urban birder. Her new work illustrates nocturnally migrating birds and the changing landscape below their arduous journeys. The exhibition runs from 5-7pm (no RSVP required). The panel discussion starts at 7pm (RSVP required).

All photos © Sophie Butcher

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