This is not the column that I was supposed to write. I had planned a continuation of Life on the Edge in the Urban Environment with the evolution of my garden from almost a clean slate or your typical patch of lawn to a wildlife garden full of promise. But with the onset of migration season and a timely run in with a neighbour last week, I was spurred on by a sense of urgency to speak on the subject of preventable bird fatalities. And then I thought…why not highlight the work of an excellent not-for-profit organization that is trying to do something about it? In effect, I’d be killing two birds with one stone. Hey, wait! I really hate the expression, even though for this piece, it seems appropriate, if in a perverted sense.
FLAP or Fatal Light Awareness Program is a Toronto-based organization with a mission to safeguard migratory birds in the urban environment through education, research, rescue and rehabilitation.
Of course, severe weather and wild predators take a toll on migratory bird populations. But according to FLAP, an estimated 1.5 – 2 billion migratory birds are killed across Canada and the USA as a direct result of human activity. Ornithologists now claim that collisions with human-built structures are the leading cause of migratory bird mortality in North America, second only to habitat loss brought about by changes in forestry, agriculture, urban development, climate change, and invasive species. Power lines, hunting, housecats, collisions with vehicles, indirect pesticide poisoning, collisions with communication towers, nuisance bird control, wind turbines, electrocution, and scientific research round out the list. NPWG member, Christina Kobland posted information on bird strikes by airplanes and a possible solution using special turf grass to discourage wildlife, particularly deer and geese near airports.
The growth of dense, urban areas situated along ancient, bird migration routes poses a significant and often fatal threat to migrating birds. Many of these birds must fly thousands of kilometres along ancient migration routes or “flyways” to reach their destinations. The four major flyways in North America are the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific Flyways. A migratory bird has a 43% chance of colliding with a human-built structure somewhere along its previously unobstructed migration path. Metropolitan areas with their tightly clustered office towers are particularly deadly (FLAP). During the day birds are at risk from collisions with reflective and transparent windows, which they cannot see. At night, birds become attracted to lighted areas, deviate from natural migration paths, become confused and get caught in the labyrinth of city towers, resulting in collisions with other birds as well as reflective windows (American Bird Conservancy).
My city, Toronto, lies at the heart of one of the busiest migratory bird routes in North America, The Atlantic Flyway, and each year up to one million birds die in collisions with the city’s buildings, many of which have highly reflective windows. Hence, FLAP needs more than a bird in hand to deal with rescue operations. Over 100 volunteers, “early birds”, assist by going out in the wee morning hours to retrieve spring and fall migrating birds – sadly, more dead than alive.
According to FLAP, no single site has been more deadly to birds during the past decade than Toronto’s Consilium Place, a three-tower office plaza and the target of a private prosecution launched in March by Ecojustice and Ontario Nature. The case is pending but it could set a legal precedence with The Birds vs. Developers. Could The Rights of Nature win?
Besides the rescue operations which they hope to expand to cities across North America and abroad, FLAP has initiated a public awareness program, Lights Out Toronto, to encourage building owners and managers to practice bird-friendly measures to reduce fatalities. It has since expanded to a “Lights Out” American network with a number of cities involved.
Just recently, buildings using bird-friendly design to reduce collisions have become eligible for LEED Credit, now being tested as the Bird Collision Deterrence Pilot Credit. The credit emphasizes creating “visual noise,” by means of modifying glass reflectivity, colour (including UV), texture, or opacity.
Toronto has a Bird-Friendly Development Rating System and Acknowledgement Program with outlines for developers, building owners and managers, providing the options and strategies needed to be incorporated into a new or existing development.
As we continue to exert our presence by expanding our ecological footprint with built-up and excessively-lit cities, it comes at a cost – loss of habitat for species (including vertical habitat, i.e., the fly zone), diminished foraging grounds, and increased incidence of bird mortality. FLAP laments: “we are losing so many of our beautiful native birds, and it is hard to imagine our world without them.”
Indeed – as humans, it affects us all, worldwide, whether urban or rural dwellers. So, what can we do as wildlife gardeners at the residential level? Check out FLAP and ensure that your home is not a death trap for birds. Under Bird-Window Collision Reduction: Tips and Techniques for Residents, they have advice on window treatments from window films, blinds, decals, to placement of bird feeders and houseplants.
My houseplants are right up against the window which is a no-no if I want to keep birds from smacking into the glass. However, I think that this solution is working for my front windows. I have leaded-glass front windows, so there is a grid pattern that mimics string that FLAP recommends. My houseplants are arranged so that it appears very dense for the lower half and the upper portions of the bungalow windows (fly zone) have stained glass artwork which acts as window decals. The other possible fly zone on my narrow lot is via the back windows where blinds serve as a deterrent to possible collisions.
Some technological advances are being applied to window films using ultraviolet treatments to help reduce bird-window collisions. According to FLAP: “Birds can see ultraviolet (UV) light: a part of the spectrum in natural sunlight that humans can not see. Birds rely on their perception of UV light for success and survival when courting, reproducing or finding food. They are able to detect the reflected UV light from the feathers and bills of other birds, from a variety of berries and seeds, from the wings of insects, and (for raptors) in the feces and urine of some small rodents. This alerts the bird to the presence of a potential mate, or a possible food source, and aids them in their survival in the natural world.” Since birds can detect UV and humans cannot, we can develop window treatments incorporating a UV pattern to alert birds to the presence of glass without being obtrusive aesthetically to us.
Speaking of collisions…now, that run in with the neighbour? A collision of opinions with lots of ruffled feathers – it’ll have to wait until next time.
Originally published September 26, 2012 on NPWG