Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse: Cleveland's deadliest building for migrating birds
Every spring, millions of migrating birds pass over Northeast Ohio on their way to breeding grounds in Canada. The epic journey has many hazards, including navigating the North Coast’s urban landscape.
Each day during migration, volunteers with the group Lights Out Cleveland patrol the city to retrieve songbirds that strike the city's buildings.
Rich Nicholls is one of them.
He arrived before sunrise on a clear spring morning to scan the sidewalk for stricken birds.
“This one is not in good shape," he said, opening a brown paper bag to reveal an early find. "It hit hard and was twitching when I put it in the bag."
The flycatcher, a tiny, greenish-gray bird, wasn't moving anymore.
It had just arrived after a 2,000 mile flight from wintering grounds in Central America, only to smash into a building in Downtown Cleveland.
Not just any building.
Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, home of Cleveland’s NBA franchise, whose three stories of gleaming glass stretches two eye-catching city blocks.
Nicholls is stationed here “because this is the worst building in town,” he said.
For birds, it's the deadliest building.
The BirdCast app run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology uses radar to track avian migration patterns.
It showed that on a night in mid May, more than a half million birds passed over the FieldHouse, taking advantage of the clear weather and favorable winds to make the 50 mile push over Lake Erie.
Many choose to land and rest on the southern shore before continuing, a pattern that makes Northern Ohio one of the world's best bird watching locations in the spring.
For eons, the Cuyahoga Valley, with its lush vegetation and ample supply of bugs, has been an essential flyway for birds heading north.
But the mouth of the Cuyahoga, once a major stopping point for birds, now presents a gauntlet of glittering glass towers.
Migrating birds flying at night are drawn to bright lights, and, confused, they can strike buildings or exhaust themselves flying in circles.
Lights Out Cleveland is part of a national movement urging building owners to dim outdoor lighting and to raise awareness of the hazards of reflective glass.
On any given day during migration, around half the bird strikes Nicholls' team finds are at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, he said.
Nicholls describes tired birds descending at dawn to rest before the big push over the lake, feeding in trees along the building's north side.
They're fooled by the reflections in the mirror-like glass, he said, and, "they hit the building.”
Cheryl Langguth, another Lights Out Cleveland volunteer, said last fall, "I watched six birds hit the wall at once.”
Cleveland's wild bird hospital
Jim Nemets, a bird rescue volunteer, had a busy day.
“We found an oven bird, a catbird, a thrush, and a white throated sparrow that were alive, and a catbird that was deceased,” he said.
The stunned birds are lucky to have humans on the lookout. Overhead, hungry gulls also scan the sidewalks ready to gulp down dazed songbirds.
Today, 20 full bird bags line a bench outside the arena.
They're taken to Tim Jasinski, head of the wildlife rehabilitation program at the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center in Bay Village. The bustling basement facility is crammed with crates draped with towels, darkened to keep the injured birds calm.
“All these are Lights Out Cleveland birds," said Jasinski. "All collided with a window Downtown."
Jasinski quickly logs the day’s haul of injured birds into the system.
“This catbird was collected at 5:32 in the morning,” he said, gingerly handling the squawking bird. It has a bloody gash on its head but seems feisty.
Each bird gets a squirt of meloxicam, an anti-inflammatory that reduces swelling in the brain caused by the collision. The birds rest in the facility for a week or two before being released.
The rescue program was inspired by a security guard who worked overnight at one of the buildings on Public Square, Jasinski said.
“She would collect all these birds in front of just her building and bring them to us every day during spring and fall migration,” he said. She ended up bringing thousands of birds.
Jasinski launched Lights Out Cleveland in 2017 to gather data on the bird strikes.
Since then, he and his team have picked up around 15,000 dead and injured birds. Nearly a third of them survived the encounter.
Cuyahoga County councilmember Sunny Simon shares the group’s concerns about Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, which she said became deadly after it was wrapped in glass during a 2019 renovation.
Simon said other county-owned buildings have been made bird safe with the installation of stickers — small dots — applied across the windows to warn birds to steer clear.
But for Antony Bonavita, executive vice president of venue operations for the Cavs, the dots are a last resort.
“There’s a strong desire to find alternate solutions,” he said. He’s concerned about the dots damaging the aesthetics of the recent renovation.
“From what I understand, the dots would have a significant impact…,” he said.
Bonavita would first like for the city to remove the trees along Huron Road. The franchise will do the right thing for the birds, he said.
Meanwhile, Lights Out volunteer Rich Nicholls says he’s happy to spend his mornings as an urban bird rescuer.
“We’re doing a service for them. I don’t mind.”