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SOAR is for the birds

Imagine strolling through campus early one spring morning. The crisp air kisses your skin, the sun beams across what seems like an endless lake, and you are overwhelmed with the feeling of serenity. That is, until you see numerous small dead birds all around you.

This was the experience of Loyola Professor Dr. Rueben Keller and what initiated the creation of the SOAR program in spring 2012. Keller noticed several dead birds one morning and wanted to make a change. SOAR, which stands for Student Operation for Avian Relief, is the service-learning component of the honors science and society class created by Keller and designed to protect migratory song birds. During the spring and fall, migratory song birds fly directly through Chicago, and because of their size, most of the birds fly at night to protect themselves from predators. At dawn, these birds, which are tired and dazed from a long travel, search for places to rest and eat. Many times they overlook the glass of buildings and see only the plants, tables, and chairs inside the building as a safe place to  rest. They then crash into the glass, flying at full speed, and die or severely injure themselves.

When enrolled into the program, students compile extensive data on bird strikes. The research involves circling around campus before dawn to collect the birds who have died, as well as collaborating with the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors to rehabilitate severely injured birds, research possible solutions, and work to increase awareness about protection of migratory birds at Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus. In the beginning of the program, the students found that the most dangerous buildings on campus were the Information Commons, Norville Center, and Sullivan Center.

For their first solution, SOAR worked with Chuck Jenkins, building systems specialist, to close the blinds of the Information Commons during the morning until 30 minutes after sunrise, and this simple change made a big difference. “The management program of closing blinds is extremely successful,” says Keller. “At the Information Commons, we found 22 dead birds during spring 2012 and during spring 2013 we only found five.”

This past semester of SOAR students worked with Mike Jurewitch, director of facilities, to research the feasibility of adding special nets over Norville’s large windows. The nets are an affordable solution that can catch birds before they hit the glass and wouldn’t compromise the look of the building. “The idea of acquiring bird nets for Norville was given to us by Dr. Keller,” says SOAR student Hillary Chang. “Using the FBI building here in Chicago as a guide, we modeled our netting efforts after what they accomplished.” Hillary and her classmates created a vivid PowerPoint presentation to present the idea to administration. When speaking about the progress they’ve made, Chang says, “The nets are not up yet, but we’re hoping next semester’s class will pick up where we left off.”

Looking ahead, next semester will be the last time Keller teaches the science and society honors class, but he hopes that the SOAR research and bird watch can continue after he is done. He plans to work with other professors, as well as student groups, to make sure that happens. “It’s a great student project. Of all the projects I’ve organized, this one has had the greatest success in terms of students getting enthusiastic and learning a lot about nature,” says Keller. “Loyola’s campus is not just a university campus, it’s also an important habitat for many animals. We’re very lucky to be on the lake, and that gives us an opportunity and responsibility to make the campus as safe a habitat as possible.”

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