By Samantha Clark
The glossy high-rises in the Bay Area, including parts of Silicon Valley, may look sleek and modern to us, but to birds they look like the open air. Unable to perceive glass and enticed by plants and food inside buildings, birds often fly headfirst into windows and die.
This issue is being addressed by some of the largest tech companies, many of which line the bay’s sloughs and marshes. Companies such as Intuit, Facebook, Apple and Google have been working and talking with local Audubon societies and other environmental organizations to come up with building and landscape plans that are not only aimed at preventing bird deaths but also providing habitat with landscaping and green roofs.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, hundreds of millions of birds die in North America in collisions with man-made structures, mostly plate-glass-covered office buildings. Recent studies have shown that these deaths from window crashes may account for 1 to 5 percent of all bird deaths.
Those numbers don’t include other urban threats to birds, including air pollution, habitat loss, artificial lights (which confuse birds), traffic and noise.
“There’s no doubt that birds colliding with buildings is a concern,” said Alicia King, a spokeswoman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “In urban areas, it’s an issue, especially ones considered flyways.”
Bay Area Going to the Birds
More than 400 bird species can be found at times in the Bay Area, which falls along the Pacific Flyway, a migratory path for birds stretching from Alaska to Argentina.
To address this problem, a few Bay Area cities have implemented bird-friendly building policies. San Francisco started strict regulations in 2011, followed by Oakland last year and Sunnyvale this year.
The focus on birds is part of a shift within the sustainability movement, which emphasizes revamping consumption and energy to include nature – something Shani Kleinhaus, an environmental advocate with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, hopes will catch on.
“An emphasis on birds would really bring back a lot of other elements of natural ecosystems, like the plants that the birds like,” she said. “If you have birds, you have a really healthy ecosystem.”
Birds eat insects, help pollinate plants and disperse seeds in a mutualistic relationship. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, birds are a bellwether of environmental health — for better or worse.
Many of the newer and planned campuses for tech companies have park-like settings, with pathways through greenery. There is bird nest monitoring for egrets at Google in Mountain View, for example, and one for bluebirds at Intuit, as well as full-grown trees and a living roof at Facebook.
The social network giant, which implemented many of San Francisco’s standards for bird-safe buildings, plans to minimize light pollution and turn off unnecessary lighting at night during spring and fall migrations.
“Facebook has a commitment to protecting the environment, which is particularly important since the campus is situated adjacent to protected marshland,” said John Tenanes, Facebook’s director of real estate. “Our employees also enjoy spending time outdoors. When we were planning our new building and grounds, we wanted the new facility to fit these values.”
Facebook, which has headquarters in Menlo Park, wants its new campuses to have an innovative workspace design that inspires creativity in its products, Tenanes said. The idea is that hard-working employees won’t have to go away to get away.
Apple is proud of its new headquarters design, a futuristic doughnut surrounded by a man-made forest, and reached out to environmental groups with concerns on its heavy glass usage. The serene environment in Cupertino is meant to reflect Apple’s principles of “innovation, ease of use and beauty,” Apple said in a project description filed for approval by the city.
Birds and Corporate Values
By integrating nature within their Silicon Valley campuses, the companies are also creating brick-and-mortar monuments that represent what they say are their company values.
“I wouldn’t call it restoration because it really is a different creation,” Kleinhaus said. “It’s ‘how do we bring nature into our campuses to create a more harmonious campus?’ ”
Bird-friendly design is one way these companies also hope to encourage innovation and improve workers’ cognitive abilities.
“Intuit has this core value of owning your responsibilities,” said Michael Gulasch, real estate director of Intuit, based in Mountain View. “We are part of this community, we need to be good citizens, it’s our responsibility to own the habitat concerns and wildlife concerns because we (abut) right adjacent to the parks.”
The bird element is a natural extension of Intuit’s ideas about sustainability and community, he said.
Finally, you might ask, what about that well-known local tech company that has a bird as its icon? Well, Twitter’s headquarters in an older building the mid-Market area of San Francisco is an exception to the rule of modern, glass high-rises.
But the company does give a nod to its affection for birds in a number of symbolic ways.
For example, its corporate cafeteria is called @birdfeeder, and in the company’s informal meeting areas, sticks and twigs on the walls and ceilings convey the idea that nests are under construction overhead.