Faulty Tow­ers

Our love af­fair with glass is killing birds by the bil­lions

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Moira Farr

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 smallscale 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 bird­friendly 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 bird­friendly 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 bird­friendly 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 col­li­sion­free 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

Sav­ing this one bird was my per­sonal act of penance for mass hu­man in­dif­fer­ence to any species’s sur­vival but our own.

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.

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