A marsh in Richmond: what a restoration project taught me about racial bias, white privilege, and environmental justice

IMG_8286The people of Richmond did not like our choice for a restoration project; they wanted a different one. They called us racist. At first, we were perplexed. Eventually, I realized they were right.

As a natural resource economist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, it was my job to assess injuries to wildlife and habitat due to pollution events, and to seek compensation, thru restoration, to “make the public whole.” Working with partners from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, and other state and federal agencies, we enjoyed our work— suing oil companies and using the recovered funds to do habitat restoration. We were “the trustees”; we represented the people and the natural resources and acted on their behalf. We were the Lorax; we spoke for the trees. We had been as innovative as we were successful, pioneering seabird restoration on breeding colonies in Canada, Alaska, Mexico, and even New Zealand to benefit bird species killed by oil spills in California. Those were the only places they nested, so we did what made the most biological sense.

In 2012 we began assessing damages to Castro Cove in San Pablo Bay near Richmond. It had been contaminated by oil, mercury, and lead associated with the adjacent Chevron refinery. To compensate for the injuries (in addition to cleaning up Castro Cove), we proposed to restore saltmarsh wetlands at Cullinan Ranch, part of San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, about ten miles to the north. We immediately met opposition from locals. They wanted the settlement funds to stay in Richmond; Cullinan Ranch was too far away.

We have project selection criteria set in federal regulations. Top of our list is always nexus— we aim to restore the same type of habitat and species that were injured. But there are also other things to consider: feasibility, partnering funds to make the project bigger, cost (bang for the buck), etc. When it came to evaluating restoration options, Richmond had little to offer. The refinery was merely one of several industrial or former industrial sites along their bay front. Contamination issues were everywhere. A poster child for environmental injustice, Richmond is also poor and predominantly non-white. We thought Cullinan Ranch was a good solution.

The people of Richmond wanted us to spend the funds restoring Breuner Marsh. This was a 238-acre parcel just north of Castro Cove wedged between the bay and the railroad tracks. Across the tracks was Parchester Village, a housing tract built after World War II to house African Americans enticed to move there and work in the nearby factories. It was one of the few places offering FHA home loans to non-whites. They came primarily from Louisiana, a land of marshes. They would cross the tracks and enjoy the wetlands as a place to hunt and fish. To this day, Parchester Village remains predominantly black. Whitney Dotson, and his father Reverend Dotson, have been fighting development proposals there, by a man named Breuner, for decades.

Initially, we, the natural resource trustees, fought the people of Parchester. The Cullinan project exceeded the Breuner project by most criteria. It was already part of a protected refuge. It had ten feet of elevation gain to buffer sea level rise. And the project, modifying the levee system, promised to restore 1500 acres; it had serious bang for the buck. And we asserted that ten miles away was no big deal.

But the distance was a big deal, and we didn’t understand why. I did not understand that other subcultures in the US don’t hop in their Prius and drive an hour to see a rare bird like me. They don’t throw their kayak on their Suburu and head for the boat launch. Nor were the people of Richmond, working two jobs and long shifts, going to drive to Cullinan, which had little parking and no bus service. They wanted to protect and restore their own marsh across the tracks from their neighborhood. They knew, better than we, that using our criteria, places like Marin County across the bay, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, would win every time. No prior contamination? Check. Partnering funds? Lots. Contiguous with other protected areas? Of course.

When the people we are supposed to be compensating are complaining about our proposal, that’s a red flag that perhaps our criteria are biased, our evaluation is wrong, and that their values are not the same as our values. And they are the ones who matter. As trustees, we were supposed to ensure the compensation of the impacted people. We are obligated to see the world through their lens.

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The $14 million dollar project has re-contoured the wetlands and planted native grasses, as well as extended the Bay Trail with a paved bike path, parking lot, and restrooms. When I visited recently, two Golden Eagles, normally rare next to the Bay, skirmished over a kill in the grasses. 

A similar conflict arose in Mississippi after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. At a contentious public meeting between the predominantly African American public wanting one type of restoration and white agency scientists proposing another, one exasperated woman stood up and asked, “Why are you all white?” When the government officials told me about this, they were scoffing. But it’s a great question. We all know the answer. They got their positions in government because they had college degrees. This in turn was highly correlated with a good high school and a good neighborhood. The money that financed all that started with their parents or grandparents, who probably began accumulating their family’s wealth after a subsidized college degree and home loan thru the GI Bill, or an FHA home loan, or maybe even a free plot of Native land via the Homestead Act, all programs that built the white middle class—and largely excluded people of color. The odds of a black person qualifying for one of these government positions were slim. That’s why that panel of restoration experts was all white. And they brought their cultural values with them.

In the end, we caved in and split the funds between Cullinan and Breuner (begrudgingly). I went to the Breuner Marsh project dedication ceremony, which featured speeches by both Whitney Dotson and Representative George Miller. There I learned everything I should have known earlier. That the people of Parchester Village had been fighting to save that marsh for decades.

They have since renamed the marsh; it is now the Dotson Family Marsh.

whit! Sorting out the call notes of western Empidonax flycatchers

After a flurry of migrant Empidonax flycatchers this April in California, a number of us engaged in a discussion about their whit! call notes. Specifically, could we tell Willow from Dusky from Gray just by the whit? Personally, I’m not there yet. I usually only hear them a few times a year, which is insufficient experience, and I suspect there’s individual variation as well as the tricks that wind, humidity, and distance play on sound. But what about analyzing their sonograms with a good recording?

I looked at the very best on-line recordings from the Macaulay Library (collected via eBird, and there’s a collection of the best ones at Peterson Bird Sounds) and from xeno-canto. (Warning: the horizontal axis is different between their sonograms. Xeno-canto sonograms fit about two seconds in the space where Macaulay fits one second of recording, thus compressing the sonogram. Here, I stretched the xeno-canto sonograms horizontally to adjust for that.)

Willow whits

Dusky whits

Gray whits

It appears that Willow, with a good recording, is distinctive, with up to three harmonic tones and that downward slope after the upward slow. To the ear, the Willow whit is softer and sweeter than the others. Dusky and Gray, on the other hand, are both dry sharp whits, and virtually indistinguishable on the sonograms. Gray is more likely to go up to 10 kHz or higher, and that echo line on the first Gray sonogram was consistent on all the calls, at least for that individual recording. For the record, Least was similar to Dusky and Gray, although the triangular dark shadow to the right of the main call tended to be thicker and larger.

iPhone whit

iPhone recording

To the right is a typical iPhone recording, probably a Dusky. Based only on this sonogram, just a shadow of the good ones above, it could be any of the species. The take-home lesson is that one could probably diagnostically identify a Willow whit from a sonogram with a very good recording. The Dusky and Gray whits are too close to call.

Our discussion also focused on spring migration timing and incorporated Hammond’s (as many of these birds are silent). Again, I turned to eBird for some trends.

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whit map

Spring migration for western Empids. These maps are based on 2017-18 data. I excluded a few outliers in each case. Nevertheless, these dates represent the earliest arrivals. Most birds were a week later than the dates shown.

The results are that Hammond’s is the earliest, followed by Gray and then Dusky. For all three, however, there was a pulse of records during the last week of April. Willow is a full month behind the other two. In fact, even in southern Arizona there were very few Willow records before May 10.

Kaufmann empidsMuch has been written about Empid identification. Here’s a link to the Rowland 2009 article in Birding. My personal favorite is the chapter in Kenn Kaufmann’s Advanced Birding. The diagram at left is from the old version; the new one is even better, showing variations within species.

For the Hammond’s/Dusky challenge in spring, I put together the diagram below. These identifications were confirmed by calling birds, which are easily separated (Hammond’s says peep rather than whit).

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Finally, if you’re still confused, there’s this infamous meme:

empid meme

Spring Migration in the Central Valley

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Compared to fall, spring migration is fast and furious. It ramps up thru April, peaks in early May, and then ends abruptly. Birds don’t stay long; they’re in a hurry. Rarities rarely last more than a day. And there are fewer birds than in the fall, winter mortality having taken its toll. But, like this Lazuli Bunting, the birds are in their best dress.

In 2010, after ten years of collecting data on morning “warbler walks” in my local patch in Davis, the Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin published my results. You can read the whole paper here:

Hampton, S. 2010. Passerine migration patterns in Davis, Yolo County—2000-2010. Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin 13(3): 45-61.

Last fall, I posted a re-visualization of the data from that paper with regard to fall migration. Here is the spring version.

I’ve divided it into two graphs, one for more common species (peaking at 1 to 4.5 birds per survey), and another for less common migrants (less than 1 per survey).

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DavisMigrants2springThe same caveats apply:

  • A “survey” here is basically a morning walk lasting about 35 minutes.
    This was for my little route in north Davis (where the eBird hotspot is “North Davis Farms Subdivision”). For other locations in the Central Valley, even nearby ones, I would expect the numbers and relative abundance to vary a little. For example, I see a lot more flycatchers at Babel Slough and Grasslands Park than are reflected here.
  • Putah Creek near Pedrick Rd, a current favorite of birders, generally has more birds than is shown here because it’s a larger area, birders spend more than 35 minutes when they visit, and the habitat is slightly different.
  • A large portion of the birds in my data are “heard only”.
  • For additional details, see the full article linked above. I’m happy to provide my Excel spreadsheets of this data to anyone interested.
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Some species are more common in spring than fall. These include Hermit Warbler (above), Townsend’s Warbler, and Swainson’s Thrush (with a very narrow migration window in mid-May).

I’ve also linked lots of the bird literature specific to Yolo County at my Yolo County Birding website; see the list of papers in the lower right corner of that page.

On these graphs, I’ve left out the rarer birds, species that occur at a rate of less than 0.2 birds/survey (less than 1 out of every 5 surveys). These include Hammond’s and Dusky Flycatchers. It also includes Willow Flycatcher, House Wren, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Chipping Sparrow, all of which are quite regular in the fall but rarely seen in spring migration.

Oceanography, plastic pollution, and Big Ag in the Amazon: What you can learn from the beach in the Yucatán

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Plastics and rotting sargassum, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Quintana Roo, Mexico

The beaches south of Cancun, Mexico were once famed for their talcum powder white sand and leaning coconut palms. Now they tell you a lot about the world.

Waves pile sargassum seaweed up to ten feet high along the waters edge while the sun cooks the rotting vegetation higher on the beach. I saw it about two feet high. It smells and traps baby sea turtles, preventing them from reaching the sea. And it’s not from Mexico. Sargassum is a floating algae, different from the seagrass that is anchored to the sea bottom offshore. Fed by warming seas and nutrients from agricultural runoff from the Amazon and other rivers to the south, sargassum has bloomed in recent years. Wind and currents bring it to the Yucatán Peninsula, where it has affected tourists’ enjoyment of the beaches.

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But that’s not all. The beaches are littered with plastic garbage— mostly bottles and containers associated with beverages, personal care products, or automotive fluids. I couldn’t read the labels on most of them— they had clearly been at sea too long, drifting from too far away– but it appears most of them are not from Mexico either. Of the 47 labels I could read, here are the results.

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I searched about 400 meters of beach at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of Tulum, Mexico on the Yucatán Peninsula. There were about a thousand plastic containers. I could only read the labels on 47 of them. They came from all over the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America, and even West Africa and Asia.

The countries of origin based on the labels on the plastic containers are correlated with distance and currents. Cruise ships are an unlikely source– dumping plastics at sea has been banned for over a decade in the Caribbean.

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Skin cream from Togo.

The disproportionate percentage of plastics from Haiti (mostly energy drinks) suggest this trash comes primarily from land-based sources, not cruise ships, and is correlated with poverty and the ability to address garbage. The high percentage from the US may be from local tourists or even Puerto Rico. Mexico is undoubtedly over-represented in my sample– those plastics come from the nearest and are likely less degraded and easier to read. Given that over 95% of the containers were so worn they were unreadable, it is likely they drifted from far away.

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This beach, the lee of a point, was the cleanest one I encountered.

 

Two of the nation’s top birding spots threatened by the wall

Of the top 20 birding sites in the entire United States, based on the number of species reported on eBird, six of them are in south Texas. Two of them, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, are threatened by Trump’s proposed wall.

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RG border map

The map above, taken from an excellent article illustrating all of the natural resources at risk from California to Texas, includes the bird totals for the eBird hotspots associated with the at-risk parks and wildlife refuges. The wall is often constructed hundreds of yards north of the actual border (the Rio Grande River). It typically includes a swath of cleared land on each side of it.  At Bentsen and Santa Ana, the wall threatens to destroy critical remaining habitat and strand the parks in “no-man’s land”, preventing public access. Dozens of articles have been written regarding the impacts to everything from butterflies to ocelots.

Sabal Palm is unique, in that the natural area is south of the wall. Visitors pass thru the wall in order to visit the park. However, there is no guarantee this arrangement will be made at other sites. Should public access be denied at Bentsen, the park could revert back to the Bentsen family per a historical agreement. The national wildlife refuges are especially at risk. As they are already federal properties, the Administration doesn’t have to deal with acquiring private property. Thus, they are the easiest places to build.

 

 

The decline of Mountain Plovers in two graphs

I live in Yolo County, California, near Sacramento, where Mountain Plovers used to be an annual winter specialty. Searching for “dirt clods with legs”, we used to be able to find dozens of these unique shorebirds, sometimes over a hundred.

Those days are over. They are now “irregular”, meaning we don’t find them every year. We’ve struck out five of the last eleven years. Before that, we averaged a high count of 72 individuals. The first graph, built from records in the Yolo Audubon Society newsletter, emails to the Central Valley Birds listserv, and eBird, shows the high count each winter in Yolo County.

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MOPL Yolo

This second graph backs out a bit in space and time, looking at all Mountain Plovers worldwide, starting in 1980. They are a bird of the steppe, breeding mostly on the Great Plains between the Rockies and the flat lands, between the Canadian and Mexican borders. They winter in open country in a vast arc west and south of there, mostly in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

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All the Christmas Bird Counts nationwide, plus Mexico, averaged 728 birds per count thru 1994, but have never hit that mark since. Fewer than 200 individuals have been enumerated six of the last ten years. Adjusted for party hours, the graph basically looks the same.

Hell in Paradise: Why the Camp Fire was the largest climate-induced mass mortality event in modern history

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The Camp Fire was started by downed power lines, spread from a forest, and then became a structure-to-structure urban fire in which houses burned but many trees did not.

I grew up in southern California on the edge of the San Fernando Valley. Fires, usually fueled by Santa Ana winds on dry grasses in the hills, were a fact of life. I evacuated. I ran the pump to squirt water from the pool onto the roof. I helped neighbors on the edge of the hills water their roofs. Back in those days, in the 1970s, fires over 100,000 acres (~150 square miles) were rare. The worst fires destroyed 200 to 300 homes. Rarely, someone died. That was then.

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Infographic prepared in 2013, before most of the recent mega-fires.

Twelve years ago, four researchers examined a comprehensive database of all large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970. They detected a signal and concluded that “large wildlife activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s.” Looking at weather data and land-use history, they concluded the driving factor was “increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt”. Forest management, on the other hand, had “relatively little effect”. Published in the journal Science in 2006, they had found the “force multiplier” that climate change brings to the West. We all knew that forests had been mismanaged for nearly a century, and that too many homes and towns had been built up against wildlands.  But now there was a new factor driving fires—longer hotter drier summers. If you’re looking for numbers, the data show that fires really ramped up in 1987.  The so-called “force multiplier” of climate change was big—about 3 or 4. That is, wildfire frequency was triple in dry years when compared to moderate years, and quadruple that in wet years. Ominously, they noted the effect was non-linear, meaning that, in warmer years, fires really increased. Thus, the multiplier was not just a constant number—it increased with temperature and lack of rain. The Berkeley Tunnel fire, which was exceptional because it killed 24 people trying to evacuate and was the first fire in California history to burn over a thousand homes (it actually burned over 2,000 homes), occurred in 1991.

In the twelve years since the Science article, mega-fires, in terms of acres burned, structures destroyed, and people killed, have gone off the charts—literally. When it comes to fires that burn more than 200,000 acres (~300 square miles), destroy more than a thousand homes, and kill dozens, if not hundreds of people, climate change is not really a “force multiplier”, it’s an on-off switch. Such fires were very rare or non-existent before the year 2000. Now, they appear to be annual.

CA fires 2b

We’ve crossed a threshold, tripped a wire.  In 2017, after the astounding loss of 6,000 homes in Santa Rosa, we hoped that was an outlier, a blip in the data. A few months later, in December, when fires were previously unheard of, the Thomas Fire became the largest in state history. Barely six months later, the Carr Fire made Redding “the new Santa Rosa”. After that fire I posted a chart showing that 16 of the state’s largest 20 fires had all occurred in the past 20 years. We had a reached a “new abnormal”. Then, a few months after that, in November, when by all historical standards the fire season should be over, the Camp Fire literally wiped out the entire town of Paradise, population 26,000. Hospitals, high schools, stores, and houses, all gone. The death toll is without historical precedent. While that was burning, the Woolsey Fire became the largest and most destructive fire in the history of the Los Angeles area. At the present rate, next year the Paradise inferno will be surpassed by some hell unimaginable.

CA fires 2a

When I say the Camp Fire is the largest climate-induced mass mortality event in modern history, I’m not counting hurricanes. Hurricanes, even large hurricanes, have always occurred and always will. A Category 5 hurricane striking a major city is an inevitability. Yes, climate change has made hurricanes larger and more numerous, thus increasing the risk, but nothing like the change we’ve seen with fires in the West. Thus, attributing any one hurricane to climate change is like attributing a single specific cancer case to an environmental contaminant causing a cluster of cases.

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When I say the Camp Fire was caused by climate change, I’m not saying that future destructive fires are inevitable. The fires will come, but we can do things to mitigate the

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Graphic from fivethirtyeight.com

destructive aspects. A full post-mortem on the Camp Fire and other recent mega-fires is of course required. Such analysis should look beyond the political rhetoric of Trump, exclusively blaming management practices in national forests. Most of these fires in these graphs, spreading across dry grass and oak woodland, had nothing to do with forests. Furthermore, in the face of massive tree death from drought, simply removing dead trees from forests has serious feasibility limitations. To quote a forest fire expert colleague, “Yes, fuels reduction is needed same as 30 years ago, but the mills are all full from the tree mortality supply, much of the fuels are not merchantable, and we are not going to cut our way out of longer fire seasons and deadly MegaFires.”

In the short run, we can’t stop the changing climate, the record low humidity and record high dry vegetation, or the longer summers. We can’t shorten the fire season, now 80 days longer than in 1970s. But we can modify power lines, conduct preventative burns, revise urban fire perimeter requirements, and re-evaluate evacuation routes. Those things won’t turn off the switch we’ve triggered, but they might at least save some homes and lives in the coming years.

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The CalFire damage inspection map of Paradise. The latest interactive map can be found here

Why are so many Eurasian Collared-Doves leucistic?

0V2A6850In 2006, I wrote a paper about the spread of the non-native Eurasian Collared-Dove into the Central Valley of California. At that time, there were about 43 records. Now, of course, the species is widespread and common. Quoting from that paper, here’s the backstory of their spread throughout North America:

The Eurasian Collared-Dove was first observed in Florida in the late 1970s. These birds likely originated from an accidental release in the Bahamas in 1974. Since then, their spread has been well documented by Christmas Bird Count and by state bird record committees. By the mid 1990s, the species had been recorded throughout the southeast United States. By 2000, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, and Washington had documented records. On the 106th CBC (December 2005 – January 2006), over 30,000 individual birds were reported nationwide, compared to just 560 fifteen years earlier. Their rate of increase has averaged 34% per year.

Today, it seems that in any large aggregation of Eurasian Collared-Doves, there are one or two that are unusually pale, blotched with white and cream. They seem to be about 1% of the population or more, though it’s yet to be studied. These birds bare a strong resemblance to African Collared-Doves, which is generally this pale.  However, based on the dark outer web of the outermost tail feather (see below), as well as size and vocalizations, these birds are clearly leucistic Eurasian Collared-Doves.

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EUCD diagram

All of the photos on this page involve the same two darker doves and one pale dove. Above, the tail patterns of the dark dove (left) and pale dove (right) both suggest Eurasian Collared-Dove.  Woodland, California, October 2018.

0V2A6835Many birders suspect this is due to the Founder Effect, a phenomenon that occurs when a small population colonizes a large area. Eventually, all of the birds (or other animal species) are descended from few individuals. In this context, certain recessive traits that were once rare may become more common.

See the Wikipedia account of the Founder Effect for examples of this in human populations.

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Here, one of the darker doves is mating with the pale dove.

 

The international climate report in three diagrams: The world at a crossroads

On October 6, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (known at “SR15”), looking at the benefits of keeping global warming under 1.5 °C, as compared to 2.0 °C, and the potential pathways to get there. The report was commissioned after the Paris Agreement of 2015, which subjected nearly every nation in the world to voluntary goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We are already at 1.0 °C and climbing, so this is a late-in-the-game analysis.

The results, based on the latest science, are sobering. While past IPCC reports were known for being rather conservative, largely due to political pressure, this one is more direct, practically screaming for a radical reduction in fossil fuel use (which must fall to near zero by 2060 even with a technological breakthrough in carbon sequestration). When it was approved, participating scientists cried tears of joy that their report, dire as it is, was allowed to be published as it was.

The full report, a little over 1,000 pages, is available in chapters here.  It provides important details regarding the effects of climate change from region to region.

A 34-page summary for policy-makers is available here.

But even that summary is full of technical jargon that most politicians and members of the public would find cumbersome. Here I’ve taken some of the most important diagrams from the summary and modified and annotated them.  Here is the report in three diagrams:

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IPCC3

 

How to stop birds from flying into your windows

Window strikes kill hundreds of millions of birds each year. It’s a terrible feeling when you’ve set up a feeder just so you can watch the birds and it becomes a death trap, luring birds into food, only to be followed by a sharp “thunk” against your window, resulting in a stunned and sometimes dead bird.

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My falcon decals look great from the inside, but they are nearly impossible to see from the outside. Since they don’t move, they don’t attract attention. They did little to stop window strikes.

Here I present one solution from my backyard. The key is something in front of the window that allows the birds to see it and realize what it is. Moving objects, like ribbons that move in the wind, work best. Still objects, like falcon decals and plastic owls, work poorly. Additionally, the maximum range of effect of a window marker is only about 18 inches. I’ve had birds hit my window within 18 inches of the falcon decoy.

Here is my solution, which is quite effective. Tack a shiny ribbon to the top middle of each window, hanging down most of the length of the window.  I had a name brand mylar ribbon designed for the purpose (probably a Father’s Day gift), but any shiny ribbon will probably work. There are other similar brands on Amazon. The key is that it moves in the slightest breeze, reflecting off and revealing the window behind it.

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This 8-second video illustrates how the slightest wind moves the ribbons, making the windows apparent. Note the falcon decals are still there, just hard to see.

Finally, here’s a view from inside the house with the ribbons in place. From the inside, they are much less noticeable than the decals. From the outside, it’s a different story.

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Another thing to experiment with is the placement of your feeders. I once hung a thistle feeder very near the windows. This resulted in several goldfinch deaths, as they tend to flush from the feeder in a fast direct flight. I moved the feeder back ten feet, which made a huge difference, apparently giving them time to see their options while flushing.