Miranda Brandon. Credit: Photo by Allison Kronberg

Miranda Brandon. Credit: Photo by Allison Kronberg

An empathetic advocate for birds

Updated: March 26, 2015 - 10:31 am

One might think that the most terrifying moment in Miranda Brandon’s life was when she went skydiving for her 30th birthday three years ago.

But, actually, she said she felt the most fear when she was in a car accident.

Brandon was fortunate. She walked away from the wreck without a scratch.

It’s the birds she photographs — the ones that have died colliding with buildings — that were not so lucky.

Brandon takes such pictures for a project she calls “Impact.” She volunteers with the National Audubon Society, which collects and records dead birds that have collided with windows of Twin Cities buildings.

She takes some of the dead birds into her studio in the basement of her South Minneapolis home, positions them in imitation of their moment of impact and photographs them.

“It really shines a light on it and says, ‘This is what happens, and is this OK?’” Brandon said.

Research published last year estimated that between 10 million and 1 billion birds are killed each year when they slam into buildings across the United States.

Brandon said she’s heard of fellow St. Paul Audubon volunteers finding more than 20 dead birds in a day.

Joanna Eckles of the Minnesota Audubon Society, whose title is “bird-friendly communities manager,” said she started working for the organization in 2013, when public awareness about bird-safe products and the number of bird-building collisions was low.

Controversy about the new Minnesota Vikings stadium under construction generated increased awareness of the issue in 2014 when Audubon challenged the NFL team to make the $1 billion-plus facility more bird friendly, she said.

The new stadium is set to open for the 2016 football season and will have about 190,000 square feet of glass. The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority decided against making it bird-safe because the about $1 million dollar cost was too pricey.

The Vikings are, however, working with 3M Co. to explore using a bird-safe film on the stadium’s windows.

The Audubon used Brandon’s “Impact” project to help convince team and sports authority officials to consider bird-safe options.

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Brandon has been making bird-focused art for a few years. The goal of the art, she said, is to improve the way humans and birds, along with other animals, share space.

Brandon usually works quietly, and she doesn’t think she’s any sort of advocate. Or if she is, she said, she keeps a low profile.

People sometimes call her and ask for suggestions on how to make their buildings more bird-safe, Brandon said, but she doesn’t go out giving speeches about the matter.

She doesn’t like to be in the spotlight, Brandon said. She’d much rather be behind a camera than in front.

The “Impact” project has pushed her outside her comfort zone, her best friend Jeremy McNitt said.  

“She’s out of her element giving talks,” he said. “But when she does it, she’s giving you heartfelt whatever-you-want-to-call-it, or real emotion, I guess. You can just tell she cares.”

Trash in public waterways stoked Brandon’s passion for birds.

A friend told her almost a decade ago about albatrosses found dead with plastic content in their stomachs, she said.  The birds died of dehydration because the plastic clogged their digestive tracks.

“I remember thinking about that and just being, like, ‘Wow. That’s ridiculous that that’s happening,’” Brandon said.

She felt a need to act, she said, and she set out to find out what environmental problems were affecting birds locally.

She found the Audubon Society, and started off volunteering over the summer, with tasks like feeding and exercising injured birds.

But after a couple years she started volunteering for another of the organization’s operations, Project Bird-Safe — gathering data about bird collisions in the Twin Cities.

“It really isn’t for everybody,” Audubon’s Eckles said.

Bird-Safe involves walking designated routes during spring and fall migrations to find and record birds that had been injured or killed due to collisions.

On Brandon’s first day on the job, she remembers her trainer telling her to look by skyways and certain buildings that had lots of windows and to always check trash cans.

“I felt a mix between feeling really sad that it happened, but also feeling really angry at the people who made the building, being angry at the building itself and being angry at the bird for not figuring it out,” she said.

Despite the job’s dark side, she said, it was the reason she fell in love with birds.

Sometimes birds are only “stunned,” Brandon said. They hit a window, but they aren’t injured at all, and instead are just a little out of it.

In that case, a volunteer’s job is to transport and release the bird north or south of the urban area, depending on which seasonal migration is occurring.

One stunned bird sat with Brandon for almost a half hour, curiously staring at her, she said, before it flew away.

Besides her work with Audubon, Brandon volunteers on Saturday mornings at 8:30 a.m. for the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, which rehabilitates injured birds.

Brandon and other volunteers take the birds to a field, attach them to a parachute cord and allow them to fly.

Her love of birds from almost a lifetime of experience caring for sensitive animals, Brandon said.

Her family raised dogs — mastiffs and bull terriers —when she was young.

And they had chickens, rabbits, dogs and a horse for pets on their farm near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

“I grew up around animals,” Brandon said, her voice still carrying a subtle southern twang.

Her mother said when she wasn’t playing with Transformers or building forts outside, she spent the most of her time playing with the dogs.

But Brandon’s mother made sure, she said, to teach her when she was very young that the animals were fragile and had to be handled carefully.

She taught Brandon how to hold — and how not to hold — the puppies in each litter.

Her mother explained to her that, above all, the animals trusted their family and relied on them to survive. You had to be good to them.

Brandon can’t stand to see or hear about animals in pain, because she tries to think about what it would be like to be in the same pain.

She’s adopted retired racing greyhounds because she’s heard the dogs could be abused or killed after they’re done competing, and she’s working with the Audubon Society to collect data that could convince building developers to work toward buying bird-safe products.

But Brandon doesn’t see herself as an activist — just someone who works toward keeping animals from getting hurt wherever and whenever she can.

“I think it comes down to an understanding of treating others how you would want to be treated,” she said. “It’s like, if you were a bird, would you want to have your face smashed off? Oh, you wouldn’t?”

But it frustrates Brandon when animals being hurt are too far away to help.

For instance, she recently heard about children who captured a toucan that had wandered into a South American village. The youngsters broke off the bird’s beak.

Toucans have large beaks, which are essential to the bird’s mating, temperature regulation and eating ability.

She said she fears that children who would break the beak off of a bird fundamentally don’t understand the impact of their choices, and might do worse things to other beings in the future because of that.

Brandon said she thinks that aspect, empathy, is the root of the problem humans have with sharing land with animals.

“If you don’t have the ability to empathize and understand what another being might be going through,” she said, “then you’re not going to have any concern for how your actions affect them.” 

Reporter Allison Kronberg is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.