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USU Undergraduate Researcher Creates Sensor To Track When Birds Hit Windows

Cutler Marsh and the Bear River provide wonderful habitat for birds - and bird-watchers - in Cache Valley. Utah State University’s beautifully treed campus also has nice habitat for birds, but at a cost: perishing when hitting a window.

“A lot of the buildings are coated in glass - whether that’s a façade or a window - and birds can’t tell if a reflection is a reflection or if it’s something that they can pass through. So, a lot of the time they get spooked by something if they’re foraging near a window and collisions are usually deadly,” said Chloe Harvell, an undergraduate researcher at Utah State University.

Although researchers already track bird deaths by window strikes at USU, they’ve been running into a problem. A lot of the time, the bodies are eaten by magpies and feral cats before researchers can collect them. To get around this, Harvell and her collaborator Suzie Rhodes designed a system to collect real-time data on bird window strikes.

“It’s just a little microcomputer, and you have basically just an input section and a tiny sensor that gets taped to the window,” Harvell said. “It senses vibrations. When something really small hits the window, it logs it as a strike. On some of the sensors we have cameras equipped. Those cameras take a video three seconds before and three seconds after, and that’s how we can tell what species are involved.”

This sensor improves the data by accounting for carcass removal and birds that survive a window strike. The past unimproved data has been used to change building design. For example, the new Life Science Building has windowpanes with lines to let the birds know they can’t fly through.