Evans Hall is one of Yale’s most striking buildings. It’s killed over 300 birds.
The white-throated sparrow, thousands of miles from northern Mexico where it began its spring migration, surveys New Haven from the air, flying over Prospect Street and then landing in a tree on Hillhouse. When it takes off, on track for its breeding ground in Canada, the sparrow, flying north at 20 miles per hour, slams directly into the glass windows of Evans Hall. It falls to the ground with a thunk.
On Sunday, September 25, Viveca Morris found and collected twelve dead birds from the ground outside Evans Hall, the center of the Yale School of Management. Wearing gloves, she carefully placed each bird in a Ziploc bag, along with a map marking where it had been found. “I really love birds,” said Morris. “It’s a little bit of a macabre hobby.”
Morris visits Evans Hall several times a week to gather the birds that have died after colliding with its windows. She first noticed the problem when she was a student at SOM. Sitting in class, she and her classmates watched birds hit the iconic glass facade of Evans Hall and fall to the ground. In the winter, there might only be a few per week, but in the fall and spring, dead birds materialized almost every day.
Although bird-window collisions are a common problem in cities, the architecture of Evans Hall is uniquely harmful to birds, thanks to the huge windows wrapping around the building. An astounding 2.25 million pounds of glass were used in its construction. From one side of the building, the sky on the other side is visible through multiple layers of glass, which confuses the birds. A less obvious culprit, however, is the abundant vegetation in the back of the building. At first glance, the secluded area, filled with perennial plants, seems to be a haven for wildlife, shielding them from humans and cars. But when birds flock there to feed and rest, they have trouble finding their way out. The glass facade looms over them, largely made invisible by the reflection of the trees and sky. As they try to leave, many head directly toward the reflection, where they collide with the window and die.
From a young age, Morris loved animals, but she became increasingly invested in animal rights after learning about factory farming in high school. At Yale Law School, where she now works as an associate research scholar, Morris founded the Law Ethics and Animal Program (LEAP), a “think and do tank for animal protection,” as she calls it. In 2017, Morris began working on a report about Evans Hall that she would later publish in 2019. With the help of a few graduate students and Yale facilities personnel, Morris monitored the building daily and collected fallen birds. She delivered them to Kristof Zyskowski, a scientist and collections manager at the Yale Peabody Museum, who then entered them into the University’s permanent collection.
Zyskowski describes himself as a “systematizer.” “I’m really interested in assigning things to categories and finding patterns,” he says. Since 2017, over 300 birds have been collected. The majority now rest at the Environmental Science Center on Sachem Street.
Morris delivers her Ziploc bags of birds in a cooler to the Environmental Science Center. Zyskowski then stores the birds in a larger cooler for a few days, next to various other found animals, before he or one of his research assistants has time to remove the inner carcass, preserving it separately from the outer skin and feathers. In death, the birds lose none of their color. Many have yellow or orange chest feathers that stand out against the grey filing cabinet. Laid on their back or on their side, their thin claws rest gently in the air. Preserved so artfully by Zyskowski and many others, it’s easy to forget the violence of their death. Not all birds make it into the permanent collection. Zyskowski described one bird whose head was consumed by ants after hitting the Yale Science Building, leaving just its skull behind.
“Your little brown bird that’s normally seen as unremarkable…when you’re looking at it up close, it’s hard not to think that this is just an incredibly beautiful and remarkable animal,” Morris says. “What a shame to lose it, unnecessarily.”
Morris maintains regular contact with facilities staff at the Yale School of Management. In spring 2021, facilities put up window film on one part of the back facade, per the recommendation in her report. These window films, a sort of half-transparent wallpaper with periodic opaque dots, are one of the most popular bird-friendly adaptations available to buildings. The opaque sections of the wallpaper are visible to most birds and signal to them that there’s a structure they need to avoid. Other solutions include covering the whole building in a taut netting the birds can see, or replacing glass with some other material. Window films, however, are generally considered the most cost-effective and discreet option.
According to Jill McSorley, director of facilities operations at the Yale School of Management, it would cost 500,000 dollars every ten years to cover the glass in these bird-deterring window treatments. The facilities team is in the process of ordering more sample decals for the back windows, but have no plans yet to cover the whole facade.
On a Wednesday afternoon in September, Zyskowski walked up to the Yale Science Building to check on a bird he had noticed that morning. The bird had been lying still, near a bush, directly under a wide patch of glass. When he went back in the afternoon, however, the bird was gone. “Maybe it flew away,” he said. Sometimes that happens; the birds are momentarily stunned, and later able to get up and finish their migration. Most aren’t so lucky.
Meg Buzbee is a sophomore in Pierson College and a Copy Editor of the New Journal.