Bird-safe building standards taking flight in San Francisco

If they could understand urban policy, San Francisco’s birds would be happy to know The City’s Planning Commission is considering code changes that would make any new buildings less hazardous for them.

Based on studies that say building collisions cause up to a billion bird deaths annually in North America, a 40-page policy document up for commission approval July 14 defines “bird hazard zones” and lays out new planning standards such as glass treatment to be required for new structures and additions near urban green space.

The standards are aimed less at pigeons and sparrows, and more at songbirds and other migratory avians that make their way through The City on the Pacific Flyway, the major north-south route along the West Coast.

The increased use of glass as a cheap and modern architectural aspect has not boded well for winged creatures — especially young ones — because they are fooled by reflections of blue sky and clouds. At night, lights attract and confuse them to either crash into windows or fly around lit areas to the point of exhaustion.

The most common solution is called “fritting” or “frosting” of glass to make it less transparent and reflective. Angled or tinted glass, along with the use of screens and netting, are also proposed solutions for the “location-related” bird requirements near open space greater than two acres. Other requirements for “feature-related” hazards will apply citywide, such as rooftop glass windbreaks larger than 24 square feet.

The Golden Gate Audubon Society supports the new standards, and although no solid bird-death data exists for San Francisco specifically, anecdotal reports such as the annual death of fledgling falcons nesting atop the PG&E building on Beale Street have the organization concerned.

“The goal here is not to make things harder for people,” said Mike Lynes, the group’s conservation director. “There are plenty of simple things we can do to reduce one of the most significant impacts on birds in San Francisco.”

The concept of bird-safe buildings has come up in recent large developments, including the planned Exploratorium museum on Pier 15, where last-minute adjustments were made to account for the building’s glassy frame placed so close to the Bay. A proposed condominium tower at 555 Washington St. faced opposition from the influential Telegraph Hill Dwellers neighborhood group in April 2010 over what Planning Commissioner Christina Olague acknowledged as a “death trap” for birds.

Judy Irving — the documentary filmmaker who did a movie in 2003 on escaped pet parrots that met and expanded their flock in San Francisco — brought up bird safety in April as part of her testimony against the Planning Commission’s approval of high-rises and other redevelopment on Treasure Island.

She said if The City wants to keep its green reputation, taking care of its animals should be at the forefront of public policy.

“We need to make sure our city isn’t killing thousands and thousands of birds,” she said. “It’s just not a good idea to put high-rises up in the middle of the Pacific Flyway — anywhere in this area.”

If the Planning Commission approves the standards in July, they would have to then pass muster with the Board of Supervisors. The earliest bird regualtions could go into effect is November, according to city legislative staff.

Pacific Flyway birds

February through May and August through November are the prime bird migration times in San Francisco, where 250 species make a stop, according to the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Here are a few:

Varied thrush: Seen in Golden Gate Park, the varied thrush is a gold-breasted songbird a little smaller than a robin.

Anna’s hummingbird: With its trademark pink head, the male of this species is known to make dives at other hummingbirds and sometimes people.

Red-tailed hawk: Otherwise known as a chicken hawk, the species gets its name from one red feather that protrudes from mostly brown plumage.

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