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As wind funnels thousands of songbirds to Duluth, reports of dead songbirds are on the rise

A yellow-rumped warbler rests in the brush in a Duluth neighborhood. Lots of yellow-rumped warblers were killed by vehicles over the past weekend, according to reports from the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. (Laura Erickson photo)

The arrival of thousands of migrating songbirds in the Duluth area in recent days has been followed by an abnormally high number of songbirds dying in collisions with windows or vehicles.

At least 68 songbirds have been killed after flying into windows in the Duluth area recently, including nearly 50 at the Duluth International Airport, said Duluth birder Laura Erickson, who has started a website to document bird collisions with windows.

 “It’s just a mess of a problem,” said Erickson, the author of several books on birding. “There are so many things hurting birds and only a few that we as individuals can make an impact on. Preventing window collisions is one.”

Many more migrating birds probably have been killed in collisions with cars in Duluth and along Minnesota Highway 61, according to individual reports and Facebook postings.

“A lot of birds were being killed along Highway 61,” said Janelle Long, executive director of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. “A lot of people, including me, had witnessed that —

yellow-rumped warblers and juncos. They’re tired and looking for food.”

Duluth’s Peggy Farr of Wildwoods, a wildlife rehabilitation organization, said Wildwoods had received 54 calls of injured birds on Friday.

“That’s huge. We admitted 14, I think,” Farr said. “Yesterday (Sunday) there were a bunch more. Some died, some recovered. Most were window strikes.”

Counters at Duluth’s Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory reported counting more than 65,000 migrating nonraptors — most of them songbirds such as robins, warblers and sparrows — from Friday through Sunday. The birds were pushed toward Lake Superior by strong northwesterly winds. To avoid flying over the lake, the birds follow the North Shore toward Duluth before continuing their migrations to Mexico, Central America and South America, Erickson said.

The dead birds at the airport were observed by Duluth’s Penny Schwarze, who saw about 20 two weeks ago and 28 more on Sunday, she said. She found them on the ground below large panes of glass.

“It’s an avoidable thing,” Schwarze said. “I was really upset.”

Natalie Peterson, director of communication and marketing for the Duluth Airport Authority, said the airport is looking for options to solve the problem.

“We don’t want to see the birds hitting the windows,” Peterson said. “I’ve been meeting with a company to come up with a solution. We are looking at films we can put on the outside of the building that the birds can see.”

Solving the problem of vehicles hitting birds may be more difficult. The migrating birds typically are weary and hungry and less able to avoid the hazards of moving vehicles, Erickson said. One driver estimated in a Facebook post that he had hit 20 songbirds while driving over the weekend.

“On Highway 61, the pavement warms faster than the grass or plants,” Erickson said. “Insects are more prevalent on the road itself and next to it. That draws the birds in. They’re so confused and hungry. They’re in this really keyed-up, stressed situation.”

Erickson said she has no way of estimating how many birds may have been killed in car collisions.

“A lot are killed by cars,” Erickson said. “I don’t think anyone driving along (Highway) 61 this weekend didn’t hit a bird or just miss them. One person got two birds with their bike.”

The influx of migrating birds that has ended up in or near Duluth is called, in ornithological terms, a “fall-out” of birds. Duluth has seen similar fall-out events in some past years, Erickson said.

The peak of the weekend’s songbird migration occurred Saturday, according to reports from Hawk Ridge. On that day, counters tallied more than 37,000 non-raptors, including more than 23,000 robins. Counters called it a “massive” non-raptor migration.

“It seemed every road and yard had robins, sparrows and warblers,” the report stated. “Unfortunately, many yellow-rumps (yellow-rumped warblers) were killed along Highway 61.”

Car collisions can be avoided only by drivers slowing down where it’s safe and practical, Erickson said.

“But you can’t drive too slowly on 61,” she said.

Large windows on buildings pose a significant problem for birds, said Erickson, who has been active in an effort to reduce potential bird collisions with windows at the new Minnesota Vikings stadium in Minneapolis.

Most bird collisions with windows occur at night, Erickson said, when the birds are drawn to areas of light. She said when she saw the expansive windows at the Duluth airport, she knew they would pose a problem for birds.

“We’re going to need to get some kind of netting over those windows,” she said.

Farr said the Vikings stadium discussion has drawn attention to the issue of bird collisions with windows.

 “I’m glad Laura’s bringing awareness to it,” she said. “I think it’s a very important issue, especially for cities like Duluth, where we’re on a major flyway.”

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