The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One tall building. One dark and stormy night. 395 dead birds.

At 7:20 a.m. earlier this month, Josh Henderson was summoned to a mass casualty event at a 23-story building in downtown Galveston, Tex. He arrived to a scene unlike any he had ever witnessed.

Henderson, supervisor of the animal services unit in the Galveston Police Department, quickly began collecting the bodies — dozens upon dozens of migratory birds that had evidently become disoriented and slammed into the high-rise while flying north from Central and South America during a storm the night before.

Three of the birds — a Nashville warbler and two magnolia warblers — were alive. But 395 were not so lucky.

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Henderson knows the number because he counted the animals by hand, sorted them into a rainbow-hued array on an autopsy table, and then packaged them for delivery to researchers. The resulting list and images will deliver a gut-punch to any appreciator of birds, and probably to most anyone who likes living things.

Henderson’s body count began like this:

90 Nashville warblers
60 Blackburnian warblers
42 chestnut-sided warblers
41 ovenbirds
29 yellow warblers

And on it went, all the way down to “1 cerulean warbler.”

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In a statement, Henderson sounded a bit stunned by the mass casualties. Birds fly into buildings fairly regularly, he conceded. But “the numbers are nothing I am familiar with throughout my career in animal services,” he said. “This is the largest event like this I have ever been a part of in over 10 years.”

Bird advocacy groups said the incident, which may have been exacerbated by strong storm winds that propelled some of the animals into the structure, served as a reminder of the dangers buildings pose to birds. As many as 1  billion birds die in collisions with glass in the United States each year, according to American Bird Conservancy. An Audubon Society representative said building crashes are a “tragic and avoidable fate for too many birds that comes second only to death by cat.”

“Turning off indoor and outdoor lights, especially during spring and fall migration seasons, is a simple and effective way to protect birds and save people money,” said Tania Homayoun, urban conservation program manager for Audubon Texas. Wildlife advocates also argue that new buildings should be constructed with “bird friendliness” in mind, which can involve using patterned, frosted or other non-reflective glass, as well as incorporating architectural features such as awnings.

Henderson said he hoped the incident would “inspire change.” And a little over a week after the bird deaths, it did.

On Friday night, the skyscraper, which is the headquarters of American National Insurance, turned off the floodlights that normally illuminate the structure and the plaza around it. Instead, a string of green safety bulbs — important for warning airplanes — ran around the very top of the tower. An American National spokesman told the Houston Chronicle that the building plans to keep its lights off during the migration season or when the Houston Audubon Society sends out alerts about conditions that might spell trouble for birds, such as storms or low clouds.

“The Texas coast is the first land these migrants encounter after crossing the Gulf of Mexico,” Richard Gibbons, conservation manager for Houston Audubon, told the National Audubon Society. That means they’re tired, and “right away they’re looking for habitat.”

The three birds that survived that blustery night in Galveston were taken by the area’s new, volunteer-run Galveston Bay Injured Bird Response Team to the Wildlife Center of Texas, in Houston, in hopes that they might recover and be released. The 395 corpses were shipped off to Texas A&M University and Louisiana State University, where scientists plan to collect their DNA, take tissue samples and preserve them for future research purposes, Henderson said.

“This dark cloud does have a silver lining, as the birds collected are a great representation of the migratory birds in our area at this time,” he said. “Hopefully this event will bring light to the subject.”

This article has been updated. 

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