Make McCormick’s Lakeside building and other structures more bird-friendly

The Lakeside Center at McCormick Place in 2011. Its windows are hazardous to migrating birds.

Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Before Monty the piping plover was confirmed dead on Friday, people were crossing their fingers, hoping his longtime mate Rose would make her way back to Montrose Beach. It’s a reminder Chicago should be doing more to protect migratory birds.

One place to start is the McCormick Place Lakeside Center, whose large window panes have long attracted migrating birds to their deaths as they fly into the glass. Built before the lakefront protection ordinance of the early 1970s and situated right on the lakefront, the building is a hazard for disoriented birds.

Lakeside’s location on Park District land has long been criticized for breaking up the stretch of parkland that is such an iconic feature of Chicago. As McCormick Place has expanded, hopes have risen that at some point, the underutilization of Lakeside and the high cost of needed refurbishing might bring about the day when that segment of the beachfront is again free and clear for public use.

We hope Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Museum Campus Working Group, which is re-imagining the lakefront museum campus, is thinking about that.

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Since the early 1980s, more than 42,000 birds have been found dead after they collided with Lakeside’s windows. The building is one of the biggest bird hazards in Chicago, which is situated on a major avian migration flyway. In 2019, Cornell University listed Chicago as the most dangerous city for birds.

The most dangerous times for migrating birds are between sundown and dawn. Turning off lights can help. Last year, a Field Museum study using decades of data found there were 11 times fewer nighttime bird collisions during the spring migration season and six times fewer collisions during the fall migration if half the windows at McCormick Place were dark.

Lakeside does close curtains when the facility is not in use, which prevents lights from attracting the birds and which has reduced the number of bird deaths. Closing the curtains prevents 80% of bird strikes. But according to bird advocates who have been in negotiations with Lakeside, when the facility is in use, clients renting the space are allowed to set their own policies about whether to close the curtains or leave them open.

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That doesn’t much help birds, whose numbers have been declining at an alarming rate across North America. In 2019, scientists reported the bird population declined on the continent by about 3 billion, more than a quarter of the bird population. Across the country, about 600 million birds die from building collisions every year. Now, birds are also struggling with a new, virulent and often-fatal disease known as highly pathogenic avian influenza as well.

Another option, though costly, would be to retrofit the windows with a patterned screening to warn birds of the presence of glass. When Northwestern University learned its Kellogg Global Hub, which opened in 2017 on the lakefront, was luring birds with its reflective glass that birds couldn’t see because of reflections of the lake, sky, trees and bushes, it retrofitted the windows to help the birds.

When Lakeside was being considered for a casino, the architecture firm Jahn/’s redesign would have used transparent glass and lighting to integrate the structure with its surroundings. But those plans have been dropped.

Birds that migrate through Chicago

Examples of birds that migrate through the Chicago area

Eastern Phoebe, White-throated sparrow, White-crowned sparrow, Fox sparrow, Hermit thrush, Brown thrasher, Gray catbird, Golden-crowned kinglet, Ruby-crowned kinglet, Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Eastern wood-pewee, Great crested flycatcher, Scarlet tanager, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore oriole, Rose-breasted grosbeak, Yellow-rumped warbler, Palm warbler, Black-throated green warbler, American redstart, Blackburnian warbler, Chestnut-sided warbler, Yellow warbler, Magnolia warbler.

SOURCE: Chicago Botanic Garden

Chicago was a leader in pioneering the “Lights Out” program, which encourages building owners to turn off unnecessary nighttime lighting during times of migration. And there have been more meetings lately involving the Department of Planning and Development about implementing a resolution, passed two years ago, to put greater weight on bird protection on the checklist of environmental standards that building developers need to meet to get approval for their projects.

The city should get that policy in place for new construction. And owners of existing buildings such as Lakeside should be searching for more ways they can make their structures safer for birds.

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