Almost everyone would love to be the world's top expert on one issue, no matter how obscure the topic.
But Daniel Klem Jr., a Pennsylvania ornithology professor, has been called the leading authority on one of the world's greatest environmental tragedies: Bird-window collisions.
This is no laughing matter. Hundreds of millions of birds die each year by smashing into glass buildings they just don't see.
"Glass is invisible to birds," said Klem, an ornithology professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. "Wherever you have glass, you have birds being killed."
Klem, who's been researching the topic since 1974, published a 1990 paper claiming that between 100 million and 1 billion birds die this way each year in the United States. A more sophisticated study by the Smithsonian Institution later pegged the figure at closer to 1 billion.
"You have these useful, beautiful creatures, and they're animals without a voice. Nobody can protect them," Klem added. "If this is an unintended cause of death caused by individuals, then here we are, with no mal-intent, creating these death traps. We have a moral and ethical obligation to change that."
Klem came to Niagara Falls on Monday for overdue recognition of his research contributions to the bird-friendly glass installed on the Niagara Falls State Park Observation Tower overlooking the Falls. During a brief press conference, park officials presented Klem with a replica of the new sign near the tower, recognizing his efforts in the building's striped design.
Originally, the new tower, rebuilt in 2002, was going to be made of reflective plate glass that would mirror the clouds and the sky, providing another breathtaking view for the millions of Falls visitors, according to Karen Terbush, New York State Parks environmental analyst. But thanks partly to Klem's research, the designers opted for a 35-foot-shorter tower, with 4-inch-wide white vertical stripes alternating with 2-inch-wide strips of glass.
Park officials thus chose environmental concerns over the crowd-pleasing possibilities for the new tower. And now they, along with Klem, want to spread that message.
"So many people from all over the world come to see the falls," Terbush said. "Hopefully, they will see the sign and the glass, be educated about this issue and take the message home with them."
Educating the public about this massive problem hasn't been easy.
"You want to know what the definition of an educational failure is?" the self-deprecating Klem asked. "I've been studying and writing about this for 43 years. In my humble view, the progress has been modest or meek."
One reason is that people love their sleek-looking glass structures, which both protect them and afford them great views. Another obstacle is the sheer scope of the problem. And these fatal bird-glass collisions are individual mishaps, not a single event that captures the media's and the public's attention.
"You would need 333 Exxon Valdezes every year to equal the lowest level of attrition by windows," Klem noted.
This daily tragedy also claims the lives of more than just the oldest or weakest birds.
"It kills the fittest birds, as well as the unfit," Klem said. "How can a population survive if it's losing some of its best breeders, its fittest members?"
On Monday, Klem posed for photos while standing in front of the observation tower's striped-window design.
"Making glass safer for birds is possible, and this is an iconic example of it," Klem said. "I'd like the architects first of all to be cognizant of this issue and then to do something about it."
Simple short-term solutions include everything from window screens and painted artwork to properly placed string, tape and decals, according to the American Bird Conservancy. A more complicated solution is alternating stripes of UV-reflecting and UV-absorbing window coverings. In other words, anything to help the birds see the windows.
"The long-term solution, the one that is going to change the world and protect the birds into the future, is to use bird-safe glass in new construction and remodeling," Klem said.
He's fought this battle since beginning his doctoral dissertation at Southern Illinois University in 1974. He knows how tough this public-awareness struggle will be, and how to grab the public's attention.
"We've got to find a celebrity who's going to make it seem important," he said.
Klem is well aware of the consequences of ignoring this problem, as habitat destruction and the building of more sleek, glass high-rises continue.
"It's a worthy cause," he said. "And it's not going to go away."