The Bird Man of Omaha looks toward the ground and silently points a bony finger at the death covering the concrete.
It happens as we're walking outside the CenturyLink Center on a Tuesday morning, but the truth is that the same scene could happen in front of the Holland Center or the First National Bank Tower or any other number of buildings in downtown Omaha.
The Bird Man is silently pointing at a pile of black feathers, about the size of a baseball, smashed lifelessly into the sidewalk.
“I'm not even sure what type of bird this is,” says the Bird Man, whose actual name is Jim Ducey. “But it's been here awhile.”
The Bird Man of Omaha is sure he knows how this bird met its demise. One minute, he flew out of a bush or a tree to the west of CenturyLink. He flew east toward another tree, as simple and routine as you or I walking from our dining room to our living room.
And then — smack! — he toppled from the sky. Because that wasn't a tree, my feathered friend. That was one of the giant glass windows that cover the CenturyLink's west side.
The Bird Man knows these windows well. In the past six years, he has personally observed and meticulously cataloged 1,772 birds, all of them protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which have smacked into a similar window somewhere in Omaha. Most have died. He also has picked up, moved and released hundreds of these birds who have been injured, but not killed, by their high-speed crash into unyielding glass.
He has found so many birds — dead ones, live ones — because, each morning in the spring and fall, the Bird Man of Omaha bikes a two-hour route around the city expressly to discover and document evidence of birds smacking into buildings.
You may have a question for Ducey at this point, the same question I had.
Jim shrugs. “It's important,” he says. “And besides, no one else is doing it.”
Fact: There is only one Omahan who gets up before dawn, hops on his bicycle and makes a loop through downtown Omaha on the hunt for dead birds.
The search begins at CenturyLink, which Jim's records indicate is the most dangerous building for birds. The Link's west-facing entrance has two features that are great for humans but bad for birds, Jim says. One: The west side is all glass windows, and birds can't see glass. And two: A row of trees and bushes is planted approximately 15 yards from the all-glass entrance.
These trees and bushes would seem a boon for birds, and in fact many smaller birds spend spring and fall days and nights hanging out there. But it's the placement of the trees and bushes that's a problem, Jim explains. They are just far enough from the arena to allow a small bird to flutter up, fly east, get to full speed ... and slam beak-first into the glass.
“If they were closer, the birds would just be stunned,” Jim says. “Instead ...”
Five-hundred-eighty birds have met their maker at the CenturyLink Center since May 1, 2008, Jim says. And these are just the birds he's discovered on his morning check. CenturyLink Center employees pick up other dead birds before he sees them. Still others likely fall onto the roof area of the entryways. Jim takes every one he does find, determines the species — he's found 63 different types of birds here — and carefully marks down another bird strike.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
The Bird Man then bikes through north downtown, past the new 12th Street development that includes Zesto, Blatt Beer and Table and the Lids apparel store. He has found 21 dead birds here this year, a frustrating number because he thinks there's an easy fix. If the tenants would put blinds in their windows, close them at night and open them in the morning, the number of dead birds would go to zero. “Bird strikes occur in the early, early morning, before these businesses open,” he says.
Then it's on to downtown: The Holland Center, where he's found 114 dead birds in the past five years, and the 1200 Landmark Center, where he's found 140, and then the Union Pacific headquarters, where he's found 103.
But Union Pacific's numbers are going way down, Jim's spreadsheet shows. They are going down in part because Jim has contacted U.P. about the birds that bang into its building, same as he has contacted the Holland Center and CenturyLink Center and all the rest.
Most of these places brush off the Bird Man, and it isn't hard to see why.
Now, the Bird Man is no fly-by-night birder. He's been watching birds for more than three decades. He's written two books about birds, as well as award-winning newspaper stories. He's done bird surveys for Omaha public works. He used to be the chapter president of the local Audubon Society. He's currently writing a historical record of birds in North America — a record that starts in the year 10,000 B.C.
But, well, the Bird Man is far better at researching birds than he is talking to people. He has antagonized politicians and PR flacks. He has used salt when a little sugar was required.
So he keeps on biking around, putting the numbers into his spreadsheet and blogging about what he finds. He keeps on going even though he nods when I point out that a whole lot of us — frankly, myself included — don't get too wound up over the idea that sometimes birds bump into buildings, and sometimes they die.
“I just think we need to take some responsibility over the idea that we change the environment, like with a glass building, and it has an impact.”
Which is why Union Pacific is interesting. After phone calls from the Bird Man, the company directed employees to pull down their shades at night. And the company took out some shrubbery inside the north lobby, thereby eliminating some inviting interior trees that birds used to try to land on before they smacked into the building's all-glass north side.
The number of dead birds Jim has found at Union Pacific has gone from 36 in 2008 to 14 this year.
It's a similar story at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where Jim furiously pedals after he's done downtown. There, Med Center officials put banners over a glass skywalk connecting the Kiewit and Clarkson buildings. Purple martins roost near these buildings in the late summer.
Thirty-eight smacked into the skywalk and died in 2008, Jim's spreadsheet says. This year, six did.
“They have done a good job,” the Bird Man says.
But that's enough praise. The Bird Man needs to get back to the University of Nebraska at Omaha library. He needs to get back to his spreadsheet. He needs to enter the bird he found today. It's No. 1,773.