Wisconsin Developers Sue to Keep Designing Buildings Deadly to Birds

First court challenge to a bird-friendly building ordinance

The American Robin, Wisconsin's state bird, benefits from bird-friendly building ordinances that reduce risks of bird-glass collisions. Photo by Heather Tillema

(UPDATE: APRIL 1, 2022) American Bird Conservancy, Madison Audubon Society, and Wisconsin Society for Ornithology filed an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief on April 1, 2022. It was filed with the Dane County Circuit Court as part of the ongoing legal challenge to the City of Madison's bird-friendly building ordinance initiated by a group of Wisconsin-area developers last year.

The brief provides important background information for the judge by summarizing the conservation crisis that window collisions pose to birds, and discussing how solutions like Madison's building ordinance can save birds' lives. It also highlights other municipalities that have enacted bird-friendly building ordinances without issue, and presents research showing that window collisions in Madison are a serious local threat to birds. If you would like to tell the City of Madison's elected officials that you appreciate their efforts to protect birds and their willingness to fight the developers' lawsuit, please visit Madison Audubon Society's site to register your support.

For more background on the lawsuit, see the information below.

(July 22, 2021) A group of Madison, Wisconsin-area developers, led by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), is mounting the first-ever legal challenge to a bird-friendly building ordinance (Dane County Case Number 2021CV001729). This is concerning news for conservation groups including American Bird Conservancy (ABC), which has worked diligently for years to promote life-saving bird-friendly building design legislation and to reduce the threat of window collisions to birds.

“We've long understood that suburban development is a threat to birds, but developers suing to attack bird protection is a new low,” says Mike Parr, ABC's President. “People want to live around birds and nature, not see them wiped out by developers.”

On August 4, 2020, the Madison Common Council unanimously adopted Wisconsin's first bird-friendly building ordinance, which was introduced by Alders Marsha Rummel and Keith Furman, drafted by city staff, and revised with input from ABC and Madison Audubon Society. The city-wide ordinance requires new large construction and expansion projects to use bird-safe strategies and materials. It has been in effect, without issue or contention, since October 1, 2020.

Each year in the United States, up to 1 billion birds die following collisions with glass — that's approximately 2.7 million birds each day. These deaths are largely preventable through the use of bird-friendly design, a set of practices that includes reducing the total amount of glass, which also saves energy and greenhouse gas emissions, and using bird-friendly building materials that help birds avoid flying into buildings, including glass with subtle patterns or other properties that make it visible to birds, solar shading, and insect screens.

Twenty-two bird-friendly building design guidelines have been adopted by states and municipalities in the U.S. and Canada, and many more are currently pending. Cook County, Illinois (2008); Toronto, Ontario (2009); and San Francisco, California (2011) first enacted their guidelines over a decade ago. Bird-friendly design is also a part of many green building guidelines, including U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program.

This is the first legal challenge to any of these guidelines.

“WILL's lawsuit is unfortunate,” says ABC's Bird Collisions Program Manager Dr. Bryan Lenz. “Their first-of-its-kind challenge to a bird-friendly building ordinance is more or less a lawsuit aimed at overturning the will of the citizens of Madison, Wisconsin, so that the construction community does not have to take reasonable actions to keep their buildings from killing the city's wildlife. Designing buildings so that they do not kill birds is the right thing to do because protecting birds is the right thing to do.”

According to Matt Reetz, Executive Director of Madison Audubon: “Birds matter. They contribute billions of dollars to our economy through nature recreation and provide free ecosystem services, like pest control. Plus, they bring joy and emotional health benefits to people everywhere. We have to invest in their protection — it's not a luxury, it's an absolute necessity.”

WILL's lawsuit will be fought by the City of Madison in the coming months. Given the suit's potential to influence similar future ordinances throughout the state, Wisconsin's bird champions, including ABC, encourage the City in its effort to defend against the suit.

Members of the public are invited to sign Madison Audubon's online petition to show their support for wildlife and birds in Madison and beyond: https://madisonaudubon.org/bird-safe-glass/#act


American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).

Madison Audubon is a nonprofit organization based in Madison and serving ten counties in south-central Wisconsin. Madison Audubon provides land protection and restoration, environmental education for all ages, and science-based advocacy on behalf of its land and people.  Visit madisonaudubon.org to learn more.

The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology is a volunteer, nonprofit organization that was established in 1939. Our mission is to promote the enjoyment, study and conservation of Wisconsin's birds. We provide opportunities for all people to enjoy resident and migratory birds, while being a leading steward of and ambassador for Wisconsin birds. WSO sponsors birding field trips throughout the year, hosts an annual birding convention, publishes a quarterly journal and monthly newsletter, offers research grants, and serves as an informational resource center on bird-related issues. Membership exceeds 1,400 from across the United States and around the world.

Media Contact: Jordan Rutter, Director of Public Relations| jerutter@abcbirds.org | @JERutter