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Gail Walter

Avian advocate

Gail Walter has long been involved in the monitoring and the safety of Kalamazoo’s beloved peregrine falcons that live on downtown Kalamazoo’s Fifth Third building. But it was a tragedy with one of the falcon fledglings that pushed her into a more active role with the bird population at large.

“We had a (falcon) youngster that was doing really well, flying around with his siblings. And then he was found dead at the base of the windows of the medical school, which is just a block from the nest box,” she recalls. “For birds, that’s a very dangerous set of windows. It’s recessed, very large and reflects the trees and the sky on its surface.”

The young bird’s death propelled Walter into learning as much as she could about bird-window collisions. Now she is an advocate for making buildings bird–safe. She meets with local architects and builders and gives talks and presentations in the area on the topic. Window collisions rank as one of the highest causes of bird fatalities, and Walter advises residential and commercial building occupants on methods to protect birds.

“Window collisions are a big driver of bird loss, and this has become my reason to be,” she says. “I try to make the world a little bit better for people as well as birds, because if birds have got a good environment to thrive, so do people.”

I am a retired veterinary clinical pathologist and professional health and wellness coach and have been a lifelong environmentalist and a naturalist. I had a bird book when I was a child and was familiar with birds, but it wasn’t until my 30s that I got back into taking the time to look and listen for birds, going on hikes with my binoculars or looking for birds from my canoe. I became involved with the Audubon Society of Kalamazoo as well Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy and was on the Audubon board when it was discovered that we had peregrine falcons in downtown Kalamazoo.

The falcons had tried nesting on a building which was owned at that time by Fifth Third Bank, but (they) were not successful because they chose a gutter for their site and their eggs would get wet, wouldn’t hatch or (would) roll away. Peregrine falcons were endangered in the state of Michigan and under the protection of the state DNR (Department of Natural Resources). The DNR, Audubon and bank officials got together to talk about the options, and the bank was agreeable to having a nesting box installed to see if the falcons would use that to lay their eggs.

The bank wanted to make sure that the box’s attachment to the bank was designed by a structural engineer. I happened to be married to a structural engineer (Tom Nehil), and he was ‘voluntold’ to be involved (she laughs). It was successful — the falcons started using the box in that next year (2014), and four chicks were born and raised and started to fly around downtown Kalamazoo. They have had 39 chicks at last count, and they have successfully fledged 37 chicks out of that nest.

We’ve had cameras in the nest box since early 2015 to track the birds. I say that I’m the liaison between the peregrines and the community. I administer the webcam, post video clips, write blogs and manage the Facebook page. I interface with the folks who do the website and take care of the cameras, the building’s owners and occupants, the community and the DNR. I keep the community informed about what’s going on with the birds, especially when the young are ready to fly. During fledging, I’m downtown watching the chicks as much as I can be. There are some other volunteers who do that as well. We’ll be on site if one ends up on the ground, because they don’t have the strength or the skill to get up from the ground, and they won’t survive in traffic.

Birds don’t see glass as a solid object. They see it as a passageway. The reflection of the trees and the sky on the outside surface of the glass is really deceptive to them because birds do not understand that those are not real trees. If they see that reflection, they think they can fly to that tree or that shrub.

I would recommend homeowners know which of their windows are problematic. Not every window’s going to be a problem, but most people know if birds tend to hit certain windows.

Putting something on the outside of the windows to visually break up the surface of the glass is the most effective. There are products available, like films and dot arrays, that are unobtrusive to someone looking out the window. You can use things like bird netting, which is very effective and not expensive.

You can create a Zen wind curtain by stringing cord about three inches apart on the outside surface of your window and just let it dangle. You can use tempera paint and oil-based markers on the outside of the window to create any kind of design that you want. The screens that many of us have that allow us to open the windows in the summer work perfectly too.

— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity

Marie Lee

Marie is the editor of Encore Magazine and vice president of Encore Publications, Inc. She’s been at the helm of Encore since October 2011. Marie’s background covers the gamut; she’s a former newspaper reporter and editor, a public relations and marketing communications professional, and book editor and collaborator. As Encore’s editor, she is dedicated to bringing the best things about the greater Kalamazoo community to the magazine’s readers.

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