Nevius’ argument doesn’t fly

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Why does C.W. Nevius hate this yellow-rumped warbler?
Will Elder, NPS

Here’s a line from the San Francisco Chronicle’s latest “hard-hitting” science news, penned by columnist C.W. Nevius:

“Birds have been flying around similar buildings for years, but apparently would suddenly lose their bearings and crash into this one.”

The building Nevius refers to, of course, is the proposed 555 Washington tower, the subject of mighty controversy which will go before the Board of Supervisors today, April 20.

The luxury condo tower would be erected beside the Transamerica Pyramid, and it’s drawn no shortage of criticism due to a variety of issues including, yes, the threat it poses to birds.

Nevius seems to be implying that anyone who would worry about the welfare of birds when there's a recession going on is just plain silly. But is a luxury condo tower that most people can't afford to live in really going to benefit the average San Franciscan who's reeling from the recession?

And what about the birds, anyway? While the danger to birds is just one issue critics have pointed to -- think increased traffic congestion, public parks darkened by shadows, spot-zoning that doubles the allowable height limit, etc. -- Nevius dismisses it as ridiculous without, apparently, so much as glancing at the facts.

So in case anyone cares, here's is a deeper explanation of the bird issue, derived from information (readily available via Google search) on the Golden Gate Audubon Society Web site. Since birds migrate at night, they can be thrown off course by tall, lighted structures. Scientists aren’t really sure why lit-up skyscrapers are so confusing to the delicate winged creatures, but they think it may have something to do with the fact that they use the stars as navigational cues.

“Once in among the lights, birds seem reluctant to fly out,” the Audubon Society informs us. “Sometimes they strike buildings or rooftop structures outright. Sometimes they continue flying in circles around the lighted buildings until they drop to the rooftop or the ground from exhaustion.”

So, the notion that birds have been flying around similar buildings for years without any problem is pretty much a myth. And the idea that they would lose their bearings seems to be backed by science -- not (gasp!) some wild tale crafted by hysterical anti-development lefties who hate progress.

Some of the roughly 250 different kinds of birds that migrate through the Bay Area are threatened species.

The Golden Gate Audubon Society sponsors a voluntary program called Lights Out for Birds (an apt or unfortunate title, depending on how you look at it), in which building owners, managers, and tenants work together to turn off unnecessary lighting between key migration dates.

Now, this isn’t to say that 555 Washington ought to be halted purely because some endangered birds might meet their demise slamming against the fancy new addition to downtown San Francisco (though this prospect doesn't exactly jive with they city's green image, does it?). Whether or not the building moves forward is the subject of a rigorous public debate that we can surely look forward to very soon. But we just wanted to set the record straight on the bird bit, lest you feel disoriented and confused by Nevius' reporting.

P.S. We emailed Nevius a little while ago for a comment. If he responds, we'll post it as an update.

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