Photo: Jim and Birte Falconer
With the launch of our new strategic plan, Cities at the Center, Seattle Audubon has some unexpected wind at our backs, thanks to the incredible generosity of two local philanthropists, Jim and Birte Falconer. After hearing about the threat posed to birds by glass on high-rises and single-family homes alike on the BirdNote radio program, the Falconers started making calls to see what they could do to help. The folks at BirdNote, which some may know had its beginnings at Seattle Audubon, encouraged Jim and Birte to get in touch with Seattle Audubon. After a series of in-depth conservations about Seattle Audubon’s new strategic plan and our approach to addressing the problem, it was obvious that the Falconers shared our passion for creating bird-safe cities. This shared vision sparked an astounding $100,000 pledge to turn our plans into reality for resident and migratory birds, starting here at home. In a year that has otherwise come to be known for bad news, Jim and Birte’s investment in a better future for birds and people is exactly the kind of story we all need right now.
Jim Falconer sat down (figuratively, over Zoom) with Seattle Audubon Executive Director Claire Catania in August to share more about what motivated Birte and him to take this bold action and help launch Seattle Audubon’s new Bird-safe Cities initiative.
Claire Catania: How did you first take an interest in birds?
Jim Falconer: Well, I think I’ve always been an outdoor person, but only after growing up did I really come to appreciate birds. My wife and I both recall trying to shoot a bird with a BB gun and one day succeeding. We felt horrible. I don’t think either one of us ever shot another bird! Otherwise it just comes from being outdoors and then seeing a place and seeing how important the birds are to any locale.
I’m a fanatical environmentalist. What really struck me about birds is that they are the “canary in the coal mine”. How the birds go, we go. I have also observed that when people get hooked on birds, they get hooked on the environment. You can’t do one without the other. One of the things we’ve worked on with other organizations (and have been working on with BirdNote) is getting young kids, kids of all backgrounds, interested in birds. It is an easy transition from an interest in birds to a desire to protect the environment. That’s what drives me.
CC: Do you have any bird-collision stories that influenced your decision to take action?
JF: We built a house up on Lopez Island somewhat later in our lives. When we fell in love with this piece of property, we knew that we wanted to be stewards of it. We built a house. It’s not a huge house, but it’s a glass house. And I think the first response when we first heard a thump on the glass was, “Oh, what did we do!”
So, we have become big on bird collisions at our own place. We put up holographic streamers which we purchased from the Audubon store on NE 35th Street in Seattle. We put them up from March through probably Labor Day. People have said, “Hey, don’t they change the aesthetic?” We say, “Well, at first we thought so, but now we hardly notice it!” And they’re quite effective.
We thought that this is important to do because, if we’re having this problem, what must it be like elsewhere —it has to be affecting millions and millions of birds. Just do the math! If you have one big picture window with a fly-through view, it’s a big issue. I initially focused on high-rises, but I don’t think it’s a high-rise issue. But hopefully we’ll learn more on that topic when you complete your work! I think that when people realize the extent of the problem, we can save a lot of birds.
CC: What convinced you that bird collisions were a problem? Did you have an “Aha!” moment on this issue?
JF: If you just do some thinking, it’s disturbing. Do the arithmetic: How many houses are there? How many have picture windows? How many birds hit them? A lot!
The interesting thing is that people put out bird feeders, and there’s some indication that people who put out bird feeders have more collisions. Those people are our potential audience. How do we help avoid collisions while at the same time support their efforts to feed birds and enjoy that rapport that they have with birds? There’s a solution for that. We can have our suet cake and eat it too! We can have bird feeders and reduce collisions.
CC: Is there a particular aspect of the project that has you most excited?
JF: Yeah, I think the dead-bird count. I will be very interested in the results. I’m also excited about how we get the word out to other communities. I like models—somebody does something and then they say, “This is how we do it,” so other people can do it. I’m curious about what Seattle Audubon is going to come up with as a model for spreading the word: “This is what we did, you can do it too.”
CC: What do you think are the biggest challenges we’ll face with the Bird-safe Cities initiative?
JF: I think there’s a challenge with people worrying about the aesthetic. I can see people saying, “You’re blocking my view.” People are kind of view-crazy. Understandable. We all are. I think getting over that is going to be a challenge. I don’t even notice our ribbons because I’m used to them. I’m watching the boats going by and the birds, too. Well, that’s no small hurdle to get over. I think the solutions, at least the current solutions, can be challenging for those who are concerned about the aesthetic effect—how your place is viewed by others and how you view the outdoors from it. I’m really hoping that in the near future we can see the technology for glass improve so that we have products where birds can see an obstacle, but people still see it as clear glass.
CC: What would you say to other people or organizations thinking about investing in this work?
JF: I’d say you’re not only helping the environment, you’re really exposing people to the fun in getting to know more about birds. Bird-watching is especially uplifting in these times. These birds are not on social media. They don’t vote. They’re affected by politics, but they don’t know it. I love just sitting here on the deck with a cup of coffee when the chickadees come by. If you don’t like a chickadee, there’s something wrong with you! There’s joy in these birds, and in these tough times we need to find places for joy. And birds are a good place.
Interview edited for clarity and length.