Treasures of Oz

Celebrating the Natural Gems of Ozaukee County

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Renate_Witt-smThe job title alone made me want to shadow Renate Witt. She's a bird collision monitor.

Renate is among a dozen volunteers who walk downtown streets early in the morning to look for birds that have flown into glassy buildings during the spring and fall migration seasons.

Think bird watchers who look down instead of up. It's a situation when you'd rather not find what you're looking for.

We found two. Both dead. Both cedar waxwings with pretty little splashes of red and yellow on their feathers. They were about 40 feet apart lying in a planter near an E. Mason St. skywalk, which is probably what they hit. Maybe even together, though that's just a guess.

"They're trying to survive, and the odds aren't always in their favor," Renate said after scooping the lifeless birds into a plastic sandwich-size bag.

This duty makes her sad. But here's the way she looks at it. These birds find themselves in a tricky man-made environment, "and I'm doing my little part as a member of the human race to try to counteract the negative impact on their lives."

She volunteers for the Wisconsin Humane Society's WINGS program, which stands for Wisconsin Night Guardians for Songbirds. The carcasses she collects are carefully cataloged.

This is from the program's website: "Our efforts include inviting corporate building managers to make their tall buildings bird-safe and encouraging everyone to do their part at work and at home to help protect birds from the hazards of window collisions."

It's best if the lights in these buildings are turned off at night during migrations. And putting decals on home windows helps steer birds away. That's the ideal, of course.

"The Milwaukee business community has not responded as we had hoped to our WINGS program," said Scott Diehl, manager of the Humane Society's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

That's where Renate and other monitors drop off the birds they find. Some of them are found alive but injured. Renate carries a net in her backpack to help ease them into a paper bag for the trip. Some can be saved; many cannot. A 25-gram bird doesn't have much of a chance when hitting a solid object at high speed.

Renate and I had time to talk while we walked Tuesday among the buildings of Northwestern Mutual, U.S. Bank and O'Donnell Park near the lakefront, which is a natural migration corridor. She's 49 years old and a software engineer who lives on Milwaukee's far north side. She also volunteers for the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and the Urban Ecology Center.

"I love nature. I love the environment. And I love birds," she said.

That's why she's out here once a week at 6:30 in the morning scanning the streets and plazas for unlucky fliers. She doesn't attract any attention until she leans down to pick one up. Most of us are raised not to touch dead animals, so people on their way to work probably can't imagine why she's doing exactly that. It's simple science. She's attacking the problem by gathering data that she hopes will lead to a solution.

Diehl has seen a statistic that hundreds of millions of birds die in window collisions in North America each year. Most are never found.

It's not good for the ecosystem, he said, and it's a senseless loss each time it happens.

"It's a tragedy, really, of a bird that had hatched perhaps in northern Wisconsin or even right here in one of our county parks, and will fly perhaps 2,000 miles across numerous hazards, possibly across the Gulf of Mexico, spend a winter in a rain forest or some other similar habitat in South or Central America, make a harrowing journey back across those same obstacles, and then die in downtown Milwaukee on a sixteenth-of-an-inch piece of glass. To me, that's really sad," he said.

More bird collision monitors are needed. For information, go to the Humane Society's website at www.wihumane.org and click on volunteer, or call (414) 431-6204.

Call Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or email at

Article Source JSOline http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/122545198.html