Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Research Projects at Millikin Studying Bird Behavior
January 12, 2007

Millikin University students are gaining important scientific research experience in a group of research projects directed by Millikin Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. David Horn. The projects hope to discover ways to reduce the number of bird deaths from collisions with human structures and determine backyard bird preferences for bird seed and bird feeders.

Dr. Horn and Millikin students are entering their second year in two studies gathering data on window-bird collisions. One study is examining collisions on Millikin’s campus while the second study is collecting data from around the country. In fall 2006, Horn and a Millikin student also began work on a joint project to examine bird collisions at television towers in Central Illinois.


During the 2005 fall semester, Horn and his students began touring Millikin’s campus looking for dead birds. The students gathered samples and identified buildings, or parts of buildings that had a high number of window-bird collisions. The work was done by upper level science students as well as students in biology courses for non-majors that allowed the non-major students to also experience a taste of scientific research. Previous scientific studies have estimated that between 100 million and one billion birds die annually due to collisions with windows. That number works out to approximately one to 10 birds killed per building. Horn and the students set out to verify those statistics and find ways to reduce the frequency of the collisions. "Collisions of birds with windows is a significant cause of avian mortality," states Horn. "By learning more about collisions at Millikin, we can develop solutions that may be applicable at other locations as well."

After one year of study on the Millikin campus, the students found 87 dead birds of over 30 species around nine different buildings on campus. The average Millikin building had from nine to 11 bird deaths placing them slightly above the estimated range. The Millikin students discovered that the birds most susceptible to window-bird collision deaths were warblers. These birds are not normally seen at Millikin, but migrate through the Decatur area. Twenty-five warblers were found on campus with the next highest family, thrushes, having 12 deaths from collisions on campus. The students discovered the worst time of year for collisions is September and October during the peak of fall migration. The second highest was in May, which is the peak of spring migration.

By the end of this summer the students will be done with data collection and will begin to formulate solutions. This base data is key to allow the students to make sound scientific conclusions and develop recommendations for ways to reduce bird window collisions.


In the fall of 2005, Horn and Millikin students also began work on a national project to gather data on window bird collisions from participants across the country. Horn and Millikin students developed an informational web site and created a survey participants use to report bird-window collisions at their homes. The project is being funded by Wild Bird Centers of America, Inc.

This past fall, Horn used students from his first year seminar course to help recruit study participants. The students first learned about the collision study being done on the Millikin campus. Then to complete the service learning component of the course, the students had to recruit and train 12 people to take part in the survey.

To date, over 200 surveys have been returned with more expected to be completed. Most of surveys have come from Illinois, Indiana and Missouri, but the study includes participants from as far away as Texas and Vermont. The project is collecting data on collisions at residential structures. The students hope to learn about homes with and without window-bird collisions. Horn adds, "We need to know what architectural designs work and which do not. We have a sample of where collisions happen, but we also need to know where it doesn’t happen."

Once the data collection is complete, a team of Millikin students will summarize the findings and develop recommendations for homeowners and home builders with steps that can be taken to prevent the collisions. "PROJECT PREVENT COLLISION is the most comprehensive survey of how architectural design and features of the yard influence collision frequency," said Horn. "By understanding what characteristics of homes are more likely to lead to collisions, architects and landscape planners can design homes that are bird friendly. Ultimately, I hope this research being conducted by Millikin University students and I will lead to greater protection for a very important group of animals."

For more information on the project visit their website at

Horn and Millikin senior Biology major Jennifer Partlow of Springfield are joining forces with Dr. Angelo Capparella from Illinois State University in a study of the impact of television station towers on migratory birds. The study involved visiting television towers in Central Illinois on a regular basis during the fall. The regular visits allowed the research team to correlate bird kills with varying weather conditions and characteristics of towers.

In the fall of 2006, the team found 332 dead birds from 48 different species. The majority of dead birds were warblers with 241, accounting for 73 percent of the deaths.

Horn said the researchers believe that bad weather plays a factor in the collisions. Bad weather forces the birds to fly at lower levels and flashing lights on the towers may confuse the birds’ navigational instincts. Horn believes that the disoriented birds often collide with the tower’s guy wires and not the tower itself.

Thanks to a grant from the Decatur Audubon Society, the tower study has been expanded to examine additional migratory seasons during both the spring and fall. The researchers hope to determine if some towers are more susceptible, and to find solutions for the problem through improved tower design. "Thousands of additional cell, radio and television towers are expected to be constructed in the coming years," said Horn. As these new towers are being built, it will be important to design towers that minimize the risk to migratory birds."


PROJECT WILDBIRD, a three-year, one million dollar study looking at bird feed and bird feeder preference originating from Millikin University is entering its second year. In addition to providing the students with a unique hands-on research opportunity, the project hopes to provide important information to make the bird feeding experience more enjoyable.

Millikin’s Dr. David Horn, Assistant Professor of Biology, and several Millikin students are coordinating the study. The study involves participants from across the United States and Canada and is being funded by the Wild Bird Feeding Industry (WBFI) Research Foundation. Millikin students are conducting research, ensuring that other participants are following protocols and assisting participants with bird identification and other questions about the project. Two Millikin students are playing major roles in PROJECT WILDBIRD. Stacey Shonkwiler of Decatur, a senior Biology (Secondary Teaching) major, is serving as the project’s assistant coordinator and monitors four bird feeders outside Blackburn Hall. The web programmer for the study is Ted Quanstrom of Bloomington, a senior Computer Science major. PROJECT WILDBIRD has been an awesome experience because I have had the opportunity to be active as a participant and a member of the team," said Shonkwiler. "I know how much work it takes to keep this project going by participants and team members."

After the first year of the study, Millikin students have worked with participants from coast to coast. Participants have reported 36,910 five-minute bird observations recording 54,244 bird visits by 59 different species.

The WBFI reports that a 2001 United States government survey showed that 54 million Americans spend over $3 billion annually feeding wild birds and other wildlife. Horn hopes the study will help make bird watching and feeding more enjoyable. According to Horn, "We are very pleased with the level of participation we have received in for year one. As the study enters years two and three, we are in need of even more participants so that we can learn more about the behavior of backyard birds." At the end of the three-year study, researchers hope to provide recommendations on bird feed and feeder preference by geographical area of the country and by season.

After year one, Horn and his student researchers have found that the black oil sunflower appears to be the most popular bird seed followed by sunflower chips, nyjer and white proso millet.

Another finding of the study goes against the common practice of many people who enjoy feeding birds. Horn says that many people don’t feed birds during the summer months thinking that the birds don’t need the feed and won’t visit the feeders. He adds that early data from the study shows that the number of birds visiting feeders during the spring and summer are equivalent, but different species visit feeders in the spring compared to the summer. Thus the seed and feeder attractive to birds in the spring may be different than those in summer.

PROJECT WILDBIRD is still looking for more participants who must be able to identify the bird species coming to their yard, and be willing to make a three to five hour per week commitment to the study. The study provides participants with free seed, feeders, poles and squirrel baffles with the participants getting to keep the equipment after their one-year of participation.

"Participation in PROJECT WILDBIRD has been a valuable educational experience for everyone involved," said Horn. "Participants are learning more about how to do science and the behavior of birds in their yard. I can’t wait to see what years two and three of the study bring and look forward to working with the students of Millikin."

People interested in becoming participants in PROJECT WILDBIRD can sign up, download the research protocol, and enter their data online at
Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL