Daniel Klem ’68 Has Devoted a Career to Studying and Saving Birds
by Krista Weidner
If Daniel Klem ’68 had a mantra, it might very well be “I’m not giving up.”
Klem, who is the Sarkis Acopian Professor of Ornithology and Conservation Biology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the problem of bird deaths and injuries caused by collisions with building glass. Since earning a doctorate in zoology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Klem has been researching the bird/window issue and working tirelessly to raise awareness, both within the scientific community and among the general public.
An Invisible Threat
Whenever birds and glass are in the same vicinity, Klem explains, birds become crash victims. “Clear and reflective sheet glass, as window panes in homes or entire walls of multistory commercial buildings, is a passive invisible killer of wild birds worldwide,” he says. “The results are often invisible to us as well.” Birds that are killed or injured striking glass often go unnoticed because landscaping around residential and commercial buildings can hide them. And usually, victims disappear quickly because of predators and scavengers or, in urban areas, street cleaning crews.
Bird-window collisions, though an everyday occurrence, don’t tend to make the news, Klem points out: “When you hear about an environmental disaster in the media, it’s an oil spill, a poisoning, a pesticide.” But evidence shows that, when it comes to human-related factors, windows kill at least as many birds as does habitat destruction. “Glass is an indiscriminate killer that takes the fit as well as the unfit of a species population,” Klem says.
What can be done to protect wild bird populations? Klem emphasizes that preventing bird fatalities requires education about preventive techniques, regulations for preventive measures in remodeled or new buildings, and enforcing existing legislation to protect wild birds. He says that, although many solutions can help reduce or eliminate bird strikes, as yet there’s no universally applicable or easy, one-size-fits-all solution.
Short-term prevention techniques include soaping windows, covering windows with one-way external film, hanging strings or decals, and placing bird feeders within a meter of windows.
One promising possibility for a long-term solution is the manufacture of new varieties of sheet glass: panes that have external patterns that alert birds to the windows’ presence but may or may not retain an unobstructed view from inside. These solutions include patterned glass that birds and humans see, and glass with ultraviolet patterns that birds see and humans do not.Through working with a company that creates window films, he has secured patents that document the effectiveness of ultraviolet patterning in preventing bird-window collisions. Though prototypes have been successful, no manufacturer has yet agreed to take on the product. “I’m still on the case,” Klem says. “It’s a viable option.”
Although Klem continues to struggle to raise awareness of the bird-window issue, he is encouraged that younger researchers are attracted to the topic. “We need to create a critical mass so the public will take this seriously,” he says, noting that about 25 percent, or 225 species of birds in the United States and Canada, have been documented striking windows. One of his goals is to compile a complete world list of all the avian species documented to strike sheet glass. “When I did these studies in the 1970s,” he says, “I started in North America, tracking down any records that existed of birds being killed by glass. That’s what we have continued to do but on a worldwide basis. It’s an ongoing and growing search.”
From Fish to Birds
After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology at Wilkes, Klem was headed for graduate school. But just as his plans firmed up to study marine science at Hofstra University, President Lyndon B. Johnson cut all draft deferments for graduate studies. Klem served in Vietnam and returned with several combat medals, including the Bronze Star. He then went on to earn a master’s degree at Hofstra.
“I was set on studying marine science, but there was a young ornithologist on the faculty at Hofstra who asked me if I’d be interested in working with him. If that hadn’t happened I probably would have spent my life studying fish. But he introduced me to birds and I was spellbound. I soaked up everything I could.”
Klem’s research interests were further defined at Southern Illinois University, where a professor in his doctoral program introduced him to the issue of birds and glass. “One morning I sat outside the chemistry building that had an all-glass façade, and a bird came flying through the trees and crashed into the windows right in front of me. I was hooked.”
Throughout his career, Klem has struggled with his research gaining “only meager attention.” Sometimes, poor timing is to blame: “In 2010,” he says, “I was interviewed about my research on NPR’s Morning Edition. I thought, ‘Wow, now we’re going to gain some traction and get people’s interest.’ The very same day the story aired was the day that news broke about the West Virginia coal mine disaster. Well, who is going to care about birds amidst such a tragedy?”
Speaking of timing, Klem has experienced delayed recognition of his work. For example, the State Parks of New York have recently acknowledged and highlighted Klem’s design of the observation tower at Niagara Falls. The American falls are in our nation’s oldest state park and within the region internationally designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Klem was asked by the Department of New York State Parks and Recreation to consult and help design the tower in 2000, and the structure, incorporating his bird-safe designs, was completed in 2001. New signage at the base of the tower now credits Klem’s research, explaining the bird-window collision issue and why the tower’s windows feature a striped glass design that helps minimize bird collisions and resulting deaths.
While Klem acknowledges that it’s gratifying to receive credit for his design, he is more encouraged that the tower and signage will continue to raise awareness. “Niagara Falls is an iconic landmark that sees eight to nine million visitors annually,” he says. “The opportunity to teach and raise awareness at this geologic wonder is great.”
Klem’s research findings have also been published internationally and most recently were featured in an article that examines the topic of bird-window collisions in the German magazine Der Spiegel. Other publications that have featured his research include Audubon magazine, Maclean’s (Canada’s equivalent of Time in the United States), and Bioscience.
Throughout his career, Klem has been sought out by industry as well as the scientific and
academic communities as an adviser and consultant. He has worked with architecture firms interested in making their buildings bird safe by including window designs or bird-safe sheet glass. Glass manufacturers that offer bird-safe products consult him about transforming windows as retrofits to existing structures and evaluating new sheet glass products for remodeling and new construction. He has consulted with the handful of manufacturers in the world that make sheet glass from scratch, as well as several “secondary” manufacturers that buy from them, including Walker Glass Company of Montreal—which offers a product line of bird-safe glass and features Klem’s research on its website.
Klem recommended bird-safe designs to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., as part of initiatives to create a more environmentally sustainable campus. He also works with educators and administrators interested in environmentally friendly design in elementary and secondary schools, and he contributes to environmental education programs such as those run by the National Audubon Society.
Currently, Klem is advising a doctoral candidate at the University of Costa Rica who is studying bird mortality caused by windows, and other consulting opportunities have led to saving birds’ lives in Austria, Australia, China, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, and Singapore. He has also served as a principal adviser and consultant to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in their efforts to enforce bird protection laws in the United States.
The Wilkes Connection
Klem, who is a member of the board of trustees and holds an honorary doctorate from Wilkes, came to what was then Wilkes College as an undergraduate to study field biology. “I was the first in my family to get a college education,” he says, “and I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be outside in the field. My undergraduate years were my foundation.”
From the very beginning of his research into saving wild bird populations, Klem also found unfailing support from his wife, Renee A. (Mucci) Klem ’70. “My wife of 45 years has been integral in all my work on behalf of birds,” he says. “She was involved from my earliest days of collecting the first systematic data on this topic to preparing the materials for my first controlled experiments to test fundamental hypotheses. I would not have completed my doctoral degree if it were not for her constant encouragement.”
Of his alma mater, Klem says, “Wilkes gave me a chance. It’s there that I learned to be persistent and use my abilities. I’ll never give up on a student—because Wilkes didn’t give up on me.”
Daniel Klem ’68, Allentown, Pa.
Bachelor of Science, Biology, Wilkes
Master of Science, Hofstra University
Doctor of Philosophy, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
Career: Sarkis Acopian Professor of Ornithology and Conservation Biology at Muhlenberg College
Notable: Internationally recognized expert on the subject of bird deaths from collisions with glass. Consultant to architects, businesses and other organizations about how to design buildings that reduce avian deaths.
Favorite Wilkes memory: Klem cites Dr. Charles B. Reif, professor of biology. “My relationship with this iconic mentor began with my awe and trepidation during my freshman year, 1964, and evolved into mutual admiration and friendship over a lifetime. He uniquely encouraged an interest for field work in me and my classmates when we mapped the bottom of lakes together.”