Does San Francisco have a serious problem with birds flying into tall buildings? Was there a good reason the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a "bird-safe" building ordinance last month? I asked Supervisors David Chiu and John Avalos on Saturday why they supported the measure, at a mayoral candidates debate hosted by the West of Twin Peaks Central Council. Their answers were instructive.
Chiu seemed put out that he had been asked such a trivial question. The board has spent about "40 seconds" on the measure, he assured me, less time than during Saturday's debate. Avalos answered that he knows the city has a problem; he has seen lots of dead birds on top of City Hall. (Insert your own joke here.)
Be it noted, City Hall is a historical building and exempt from the law. The ordinance sits on the mayor's desk.
Here's the problem: The less important an issue is to the quality of life in the city the more the supes are inclined to do something about it. If there is no need for a law, then City Hall will pass it.
I read the ordinance. It reads like the book report you wrote when you didn't read the book. There is no research cited that establishes a rash of birds flying into commercial buildings in San Francisco, just the sort of vanilla language you'd expect from a do-gooder who smells an easy issue.
As in: "Studies have determined that annual bird fatalities in North America from window collisions may be as high as 1 billion birds per year and that building collisions are a threat of significant magnitude to affect the viability of bird populations, leading to local, regional and national declines."
And: "Building owners have noted bird strikes at San Francisco buildings." That's it.
Richard Drechsler is a bird-watcher and wildlife hospital volunteer who opposed the measure.
In a series of letters to the supervisors, Drechsler explained that there is no research supporting the need for a law in San Francisco, where weather patterns are different from those in New York, Chicago and Toronto (where studies actually were conducted). He monitors 4 acres where 250 dead birds are found each year. "I have photographs of their bodies," Drechsler wrote. "Not a single one of these birds died as a result of colliding with a building."
"I care about birds," Drechsler told me, "but I want their plight to be understood accurately."
What about the cost to businesses and developers forced to install windows with "bird-safe glazing treatment"? Margie O'Driscoll, executive director of the American Institute of Architects' San Francisco chapter, told USA Today that bird safety features can double the cost of windows and reduce energy efficiency.
No surprise, there is no mention of cost in the statute language. After all, for City Hall pols, it's a freebie. Oppose the measure and risk appearing heartless about birds.
O'Driscoll described the ordinance as "more aspirational than scientific." That's a kind depiction of the supes' unwavering aspiration to frame themselves as leaders in any trendy cause. They want so much to do good that they can't wait to find out whether there is a real problem.
Drechsler sighed, "I just hope it doesn't do birds harm."