At 7 a.m. on Good Friday, I was alone outside a mid-rise office building in west-end Ottawa, hoping not to find what I was looking for. The property was a known bird killer—custodial staff and employees had mentioned to me a week earlier that they’d noticed birds ramming into its windows in the past. “Lots of yellow ones,” the maintenance manager had told me. In fact, I’d been greeted that day by the remains of a hairy woodpecker beside the shrubbery at the front entrance. With a Georgia O’Keeffe skull exposed, the bird’s dark wings were disintegrating into the earth.
That Friday, as I walked along the south side of the building, I noticed something lying motionless beside tufts of grass in snowmelt. I walked closer and saw that it was a song sparrow, the kind of small, forgettable bird that you might miss when it flies by—what birders might refer to as a “little brown job.” Up close, though, it was beautiful, with subtle tawny-and-white streaking on its head, throat, and breast. The bird was limp when I picked it up, and still warm. It must have, just moments before, flown hard at what it perceived to be open space but was, in reality, an unforgiving window. The sparrow probably died instantly.
I snapped a picture and sent it to Anouk Hoedeman, the head of Safe Wings Ottawa, a volunteer bird-rescue-and-retrieval organization formed in 2014. It’s one of the dozens of organizations that have sprung up across North America in the wake of the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), a project started in Toronto to save birds by preventing them from colliding with buildings. Today, volunteers across North America such as myself rise before dawn, gather up nets, bags, boxes, and towels, and patrol their cities for injured and dead birds.
An army is needed because during the spring and fall migrations as many as 1 billion birds die across the continent due to collisions. FLAP estimates that Toronto alone, smack in the middle of a major north–south continental migration route, could see up to 9 million deaths annually. Crashes are recorded on FLAP’s online “mapper,” and patterns emerge. Volunteers can then hone in on buildings, and even particularly lethal windows, where the most corpses pile up.
As a species, humans are essentially selfish, short-sighted brutes. In the past century, we’ve deforested and divided up migratory birds’ ancestral nurseries and feeding grounds. We’ve sprayed farm fields with lethal pesticides. We’ve poisoned oceans, lakes, and wetlands. We’ve allowed pet cats to roam freely and hunt birds with abandon. We’ve altered climate patterns and thereby robbed birds of sustainable habitats, forcing them into unfamiliar territories. And we’ve designed all of our buildings with shiny, transparent, or mirrored surfaces that kill legions of birds day after day after day.
Dead birds are a by-product of humans flocking to cities. Migrating birds fly at night and become exhausted—they are, after all, travelling thousands of kilometres. They are drawn to the lights of our urban jungles and mistake cities for good places to touch down and rest. But come daylight, these birds find themselves surrounded by expanses of clear and reflective glass that they can’t perceive or understand. Many of them then crash.
The problem is caused not only by our skyscrapers but by all buildings, including single-family homes. According to FLAP’s observations in Toronto, most bird strikes occur below five storeys. Still, these crashes are rarely witnessed. The only evidence may be a muffled thump, a smudge on the glass. Crows, gulls, and vultures are quick to scavenge the victims.
Changes in human behaviour could make a significant difference in saving avian lives. We can prevent crashes by turning off lights at night. We can keep indoor plants away from windows so birds don’t mistake the greenery for a friendly forest. We can close curtains at peak migration times, and modify windows using patterned treatments, like lines or dots, which break up the illusion of a wide-open space. The biggest challenge is getting people to care enough to act.
Much of what we know of bird strikes is thanks to Michael Mesure, who has made it his life’s work to save birds and educate others on how to do the same. His mission started in 1989, when Mesure, then a twenty-eight-year-old art gallery owner living in Erin, Ontario, witnessed a series of bird crashes during trips to Toronto. One in particular changed him: an injured bird he’d found at the base of a Bay Street office tower died in his lap as he was driving it to a wildlife rescue centre. He swears that the bird was staring at him, as though asking him to do something. Mesure then dedicated time to rescuing birds himself and, in 1993, created FLAP.
For the first few years, FLAP was a small-scale crusade, one that Mesure says regularly left him on the edge of burnout. He knew that to prevent crashes, he needed to educate the public and lobby everyone from developers and city planners to architects and building managers to turn off their lights at night and cover their big open windows—or to avoid building them in the first place. But architects love designing with glass because windows bring in natural light and offer panoramic views, and developers like building with it because it’s cheap. Bird safety was an afterthought to many—if it was even considered at all. “It’s been a long, uphill battle,” Mesure says. “No one wanted to listen.”
But Mesure has a way with promotion. In 1995, he partnered with the World Wildlife Fund and one year later arranged for Prince Philip, who was visiting Toronto as a patron of the WWF, to hand out an award to developers for buildings that had adopted bird-friendly measures. And then there are the dead bird showcases.
Ever since the early 2000s, FLAP has confronted audiences with thousands of crash victims, from the largest of owls to the tiniest of songbirds, to illustrate the scope of the problem. (The displays are now held every year at the Royal Ontario Museum, and in 2015, Safe Wings followed suit with its first display at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.)
Mesure’s persistence paid off: FLAP helped Toronto city staff develop bird-friendly building guidelines, which were published in 2007. Developers now must meet minimum requirements in their materials, designs, and lighting practices. “No one wants to kill migratory birds,” says Kelly Snow, an environmental policy planner with the city. He acknowledges that there is more to be done—for example, older buildings don’t need to meet the guidelines unless they’re being rebuilt or retrofitted—but points out how far the city has come. Snow says that within a few years, “we went from this being a fringe issue to the beginnings of mandating all new buildings follow bird-friendly guidelines.”
On a clear, frigid morning in February, Mesure and I set off from Nathan Phillips Square for a short tour of downtown Toronto. Mesure—clean-cut, trim, and nimble in his early fifties—showed me the various buildings that now feature window treatments. We stopped at the east facade of 33 Yonge Street, which backs onto a small park. Mesure said the property used to be a death magnet. He then pointed out the horizontal white lines on the windows. Those little details are all that’s needed to prevent collisions.
There are other ways to mitigate the sprawling hazards that humans have created. Building consultants can now use a FLAP online assessment tool to determine which windows on clients’ property are most likely to kill birds. Glass manufacturers are working on designing products with minute patterns that birds can see baked right into the material. But, Mesure says, “there is a lot of green-washing out there.” Some property owners and managers balk at the prices that come with becoming bird friendly. Mesure says that one owner, eschewing the proven strategy of applying bird-friendly window film, had maintenance staff put up huge, inflatable figures that waved in the wind outside his sleek building—a sort of modern scarecrow. Birds continued to bash into the windows. “They finally did admit that it looked ridiculous and really didn’t do much to solve the problem,” Mesure says.
Toronto is now considered the gold standard in North America for bird-friendly building design, according to Mesure. But bylaws, standards, and guidelines across Canada remain a confusing hodgepodge and are usually voluntary. There are no provincial building guidelines, no federal regulations. But Mesure notes these kinds of legislation are essential if FLAP is to meet its objective of a “twenty-four-hour collision-free environment for migratory birds.”
Until then, Mesure continues to change minds city by city, building by building, and person by person. It’s slow but effective. Take, for example, Consilium Place, a large glass office complex in Scarborough. FLAP volunteers were once a regular sight outside the building. Of one morning in 2010, Mesure says, “We stopped counting at 500 dead birds in five hours.”
Then, in 2012, the complex was bought by new owners, who invested more than $100,000 in window treatments. They also have a freezer in the basement to store any dead birds found on the property until FLAP volunteers can gather and catalogue them for research purposes. The freezer isn’t used much, though; dead birds are now a rarity.
One sunny afternoon in April, I received a text from Anouk Hoedeman, asking if I could pick up a brown creeper from her home. The bird had been found stunned at the base of an office building on Ottawa’s Laurier Avenue and had spent the day recovering with her. It was now ready to be released in a forest in the city’s west end.
An hour later, I was in heavy traffic on the 417, glancing over at the small brown paper bag jumping around on the seat beside me. The half-ounce creeper was alert and impatient to get on with its life.
It’s easy to despair about rapid environmental devastation, to think that there is nothing a single person can do. After all, we cannot prevent mass extinctions overnight. But as I drove with my unlikely passenger, I felt like I was at least doing something—making a statement, a gesture, a step in the right direction. If nothing else, it was my personal act of penance for mass human indifference to any species’s survival but our own.
The conviction is shared by architect John Carley and his wife, Victoria, who, one evening in April 2015, ventured to a building in Toronto’s financial district to rescue a Virginia rail. Carley’s son had been skateboarding in the area when he noticed the bird hiding around a bike rack and cowering in a wedge of the building’s revolving door. The son of avid birdwatchers knew this was no place for a Virginia rail—a secretive animal whose preferred habitat is the thick vegetation of freshwater marshes—and he called his parents, who felt they had no choice but to head downtown from their home in the city’s west end and attempt a rescue.
When they arrived around 7:30 p.m., traffic was snarled, with construction season in full swing. Carley had to park illegally. A police officer approached, shouting over the noise that they were in a no-parking zone. “I said, ‘I am a conservation person’ and acted like I’d done this sort of thing forever,” Carley says. (He may not be a bona fide conservation manager, but he is the co-chair of a local environmental advocacy group.) The officer went along with it. At one point, Victoria had to shoo the terrified rail out of traffic. “I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing?’” Carley says.
Eventually, they managed to corral the rail into a blanketed box with a lid and airholes and placed it in their car. They then drove toward Grenadier Pond in High Park, one of the city’s largest green spaces, for the release. At first, the rail was quiet and still, but soon they heard it rustling and squawking in the box. When they arrived, they opened the lid and were happy to see the bird fly off into a more friendly habitat.
On my own rescue mission, I arrived with the brown creeper at Britannia Conservation Area. Situated along the Ottawa River, the park is a sort of urban wonder—a northern nursery and breeding ground for boreal bird species and a hub for birdwatchers. I walked along a path, surrounded by bluets, and found a tall deciduous tree onto which I thought a creeper might like to creep. I set the bag down on its side and slowly opened it.
A man with a backpack, camera, and tripod strode by, and I tried not to look weird. When he left, I shifted the bag slightly, and the creeper fluttered out onto the ground, clutching the tissue provided for its feet to have purchase during transport.
It was a beauty, with flecked bark-camouflage feathers, a downy white front, longish tail, and slim, curved bill. Seconds later, the bird was on its way up the nearby trunk. Creeping! Then it flew to the trunk of a white pine to creep some more, and soon, it was out of sight.