Courtesy Wikimedia CommonsIf you're a bird, the human-built world has some mysterious hazards. You're flitting about, minding your own business, maybe munching seeds at the birdfeeder in someone's yard. Life is pretty good. But then you take off from your perch, zip through the air, and suddenly BAM! crash into an invisible force field whose impact leaves you stunned at best and, at worst, sends you to the giant suet ball in the sky.
The transparency of windows and the tendency of their shiny surfaces to mirror the trees and outdoor spaces that they overlook makes them deadly--birds mistake them for open passages, flying straight into them and conking their little melons on the glass. A recent study in Canada suggests that collisions with house windows alone kills some 22 million Canadian birds each year.
But, there's hope for all these noggin-smashing avians. A German company has developed an ultraviolet-reflecting coating modeled on the reflective properties of the orb-weaver spider's web. The UV-reflecting properties of the spiders' webs--and the treated windows--allow birds to see and avoid them even as they remain invisible to us, since birds can see parts of the spectrum, including ultraviolet, that humans cannot.
Bird-visible window treatments are just one instance of biomimicry, the imitation of natural materials and systems for technological applications. It seems that the humble orb-weavers have already been using a bird-deterring system that we humans are just now figuring out. Let's hope that technologies like UV-reflective coatings can help save birds' lives. If they do, we can thank an engineer, but let's not forget to also thank a spider.