Empowering Students to Drive Change: Georgia Audubon and Georgia Tech Join Forces to Prevent Bird Strikes and Build Habitat
By Dottie Head, Director of Communications
Students at the Georgia Institute of Technology are creating a conservation legacy on the university’s Atlanta campus. Through a partnership forged between Georgia Audubon and Georgia Tech, students, professors, and staff are working collectively to ensure the campus is a safe and welcoming place for resident and migratory birds.
The partnership began in 2017 when Adam Betuel, Georgia Audubon’s director of conservation, connected with Emily Weigel, Ph.D., an academic professional in the School of Biological Sciences. Dr. Weigel, who also serves as director of internships, was able to connect Georgia Audubon with the Georgia Tech intern program, resulting in a series of interns who have been helping with Project Safe Flight ever since.
“The interns have been a tremendous help with all aspects of Project Safe Flight, including managing the database, identifying birds killed by collisions, and coordinating student volunteer teams to monitor and patrol buildings on the Georgia Tech campus,” says Betuel.
Soon after, Georgia Audubon became involved with the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design on the Georgia Tech campus through a chance introduction. “We were attending the annual Summer Solstice event at Southface Institute, when Linda DiSantis introduced us to the building architects,” says Betuel. “As they were telling us about this amazing sustainable building, I commented on how it would be a shame if it was a threat to birds.” This casual meeting sparked additional conversations and ultimately resulted in the inclusion of special bird-friendly glass in the building design. It was a timely introduction, says Betuel, because retrofitting buildings to make them bird friendly can be expensive and less aesthetically pleasing compared to when bird-friendly glass is incorporated during the initial design phase.
Located on the Georgia Tech Campus, the Kendeda Building for Innovative Design is the first academic and research building in the Southeast to pursue Living Building Challenge 3.1 certification—the world’s most ambitious green building program—which aligns with Georgia Tech’s longstanding vision for its campus to serve as an educational center for innovation that transforms future generations.
Through the Kendeda project, Georgia Audubon was introduced to Steve Place, a horticulturist and the Georgia Tech associate responsible for the landscape surrounding the Kendeda building as well as an eightacre section of the Eco-Commons, located nearby. This thoughtfully designed greenspace will ultimately contain more than 600 new trees and tens of thousands of perennials, shrubs, ferns and grasses following what was originally a naturally occurring stream.
Place’s role is that of facilitator, connection maker, partner, and advocate of the students. “What I try to do in everything I’m involved with is to include the students as much as possible,” he says.
Steve works with three student groups—Students Organized for Sustainability (SOS), Bioengineering and Bioscience Unified Graduate Students (BBUGS), and a Scouts group—that are doing everything from collision work, to landscape design, to choosing native plants, and restoring a small forested area on campus.
The SOS group is charged with taking care of the community garden and working with Steve to help choose plants and design installation at the Kendeda Center. They also help with maintenance.
BBUGS is currently working with a group of freshmen to raise money to install a pollinator garden in the Eco-commons. The graduate students are mentoring the freshmen in grant writing to raise funds for these projects so that they can influence and promote the outcomes that they want to see on campus.
Finally, the Scouts group is working on a habitat restoration project to restore a forest fragment that is full of invasive species. “It’s a perfect partnership,” says Place. “I provide logistical help—hauling ivy, helping with plant ID, etc.—and the students pull the ivy. We also discuss regenerative ecology and what plants we want to reintroduce to the area. In two years, when this restoration project is complete, the area will be a safe harbor for birds and will complement the nearby Kendeda Center and Eco-Commons. It will be a great legacy for these students.
Steve has also spearheaded a Bird-safe Glass Committee, with representation from the three groups. “Bird collisions were clearly a concern across campus that different student groups have talked about, and I was able to bring together a group to look at and address this problem,” says Place. The Bird-safe Glass Committee is working to identify the worst bird hazards on campus and write grants to raise money to purchase and install film to treat these problem windows on campus.
“The students have been monitoring bird strikes for a while now and have enlisted landscape services and the Georgia Tech police department to report dead birds,” says Place. “We have a Vertical Integration Program (VIP) made up of students that do different work, including water quality, air quality, energy use, and wildlife. The wildlife group has done a lot of early morning monitoring of buildings, and I was able to plug them in with Adam and his existing data.”
Steve is rightfully proud of his work. “The EcoCommons used to be 90 percent parking lot, and now all of it has been converted to greenspace. We are planting hundreds of trees every year,” he says. “This a huge commitment to creating this habitat and making sure it will last well beyond our time at Georgia Tech.”
Ultimately both the grounds of the Kendada Building and the Eco-Commons will be certified as a Georgia Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. Gabe Andrle, habitat program manager for Georgia Audubon, has been brought in to consult with students on native plants and the birds that use them. Gabe and Adam led a bird walk on campus earlier this year with students and faculty to begin assessing what birds are currently using the campus habitat and the steps taking place to make campus more bird-safe. Georgia Audubon has been a great partner, says Place.
In recent months, Georgia Audubon has also connected with Dr. Diana Hicks, a professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech specializing in metrics for science and technology policy. In consultation with Georgia Audubon, Dr. Hicks is offering a year-long course in the School of Public Policy which, among other topics, will be addressing possible public policies related to bird-friendly design and how Georgia Audubon could potentially move forward with legislation to ensure future buildings incorporate bird-friendly design elements. Adam is serving as an advisor for this group and will be meeting with them throughout the year.
“We’re very excited about this partnership and the great work for birds that is taking place on Georgia Tech’s campus,” says Betuel. “Through the work of all of the student groups and with the help of professors and others staff, there is a lot of really substantial progress being made to make the campus a safe and attractive place for birds.”
Georgia Audubon is building places where birds and people thrive.