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On a Wing and a Prayer

Developers and the city seek various measures to reduce bird deaths from night lighting

Special to National Post | 20/09/13 4:09 PM ET

It’s hard to imagine anywhere farther from Mother Nature than Toronto’s Financial District. But if you stand on Bay Street at night towards the end of September, when the clouds are low and traffic is still, you can hear the pip-pip of thousands of birds overhead as they follow their millennia-old migrating instincts.

It’s just one of the many corridors used by the millions of birds migrating over the GTA — heading north in spring and south in fall. The other corridors include the Don Valley, Rouge Valley, Leslie Street Spit, Toronto Islands, High Park, Marie Curtis Park, Colonel Samuel Smith Park — anywhere there is water. The migrating birds follow landmarks — especially large bodies of water, but rivers and ravines, too — that provide both navigational cues and stopovers for rest and food.

Because Toronto lies in the confluence of two major bird migratory paths — the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways — it has a higher than average concentration of migrating birds. And partly as a result of our condo building boom, the city presents a wall of its glass-clad high-rises right in the middle of the birds’ routes.

Birds migrate at night, and at high altitudes, when there’s a full moon and clear sky. But in bad weather they fly lower, then get drawn in by the lights and thrown off their migratory track. Thousands die instantly from striking the windows, and the injured are usually picked off by racoons or seagulls. Clouds, rain, fog and mist are especially bad, says Michael Mesure, founder of FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) Canada.

As dangerous as the night lights are, though, daytime strikes are worse. Migrating birds that fly in the daytime have fallen out from migration and are near ground level foraging for food to replenish their bodies for long flights. When glass buildings reflect the surrounding environment, such as sky or trees, the birds take it for natural landscape and fly right into the windows.

It’s hard to know exactly how many birds die this way — the estimate is in the millions — but our city is a major contributor. It’s also a leader in addressing the issue in North America, thanks to public awareness, political will, the desire of some commercial and residential developers to do the right thing, and one man’s efforts.

The Man

Michael Mesure led a quiet life as an art gallery and antique-shop owner north of the city until 1989, when a friend mentioned the problem of birds hitting high-rise buildings in downtown Toronto. Driving downtown at 4 a.m., Mr. Mesure couldn’t believe what he saw — birds all over the sidewalk.

Pretty soon, he was travelling downtown regularly before dawn to pick up dead or injured birds before cleaning staff or predators got them. Eventually others joined, and in 1993, the small group founded FLAP Canada. Since then, they’ve collected more than 59,000 birds from 166 species — the record is 500 from just two buildings in a six-hour period. About 60% die; of the rest, 80% are rehabilitated and released.

FLAP Canada has worked, with other groups, with the city on the 2006 public awareness campaign, Lights Out Toronto. It also helped create the bird-friendly development guidelines that are now part the city’s 2009 Toronto Green Standards, which requires bird-deterrent measures for new construction.

FLAP has since launched similar initiatives in 40 cities across North America. Mr. Mesure has been invited to give public talks about the bird collision phenomenon. Architects, developers and building managers regularly seek his advice on how to prevent losing so many migratory birds.

Although it saddens him to pick up dead birds, especially in the same places, he is propelled on by these “moments of positive change.”

The City

Toronto is the first North American city to address the issue. In 2006, when it launched the Lights Out Toronto campaign, the City worked with FLAP to monitor where birds were dying in high numbers, in order to build a data set and examine any trends that emerged.

Voluntary bird-friendly guidelines were produced in 2007. “Some developers were moving in that direction,” says City of Toronto environmental policy planner Kelly Snow. “Nobody wants dead birds at the base of their building.”

The solution is as simple as applying film to the exterior of windows. The film, marked with vertical white lines spaced four inches apart or dots two inches apart, was developed by Daniel Klem, professor of ornithology and conservation biology at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College.

Although it saddens him to pick up dead birds, especially in the same places, he is propelled on by these ‘moments of positive change’

When the guidelines became law in 2009, developers were required to submit with their site plans how they would treat the windows up to 15 meters off the ground. Ms. Snow says since the Green Standards has been in place, the planning department has seen fewer reflective windows in site plans.

New buildings are required to reduce the glare from night lights. Although buildings constructed earlier than 2010 are not required to install either day or night deterrents by municipal law, a provincial law makes it an offense to kill non-trivial numbers of birds by window strikes. In other words, owners of buildings with high strike occurrences can be taken to court if they do not take protective measures.

Once public awareness here increased, international attention followed, and advocacy groups began to seek guidance from Toronto, Ms. Snow says. “We’ve influenced policy in several cities in the U.S., like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis.”

Follow-ups to the guidelines will likely tackle light pollution, Ms. Snow adds. “Birds have been migrating through this region for hundreds of thousands of years, and had developed the means to get to the boreal forest before there was artificial light. When artificial light draws the birds into the cities, you get these mass concentrations. We’re coming up with best practices for effective lighting, which will be a guide on how to reduce light pollution, which will reduce the number of birds being drawn in.”

The Buildings

Developers who became aware of the available solutions started looking at applying bird deterrents to their windows long before the 2009 green standards were in place.

Minto, for example, incorporates green roofs in most of its projects. Because the vegetation attracts birds, there’s a requirement to apply protective deterrent measures up to four stories above grade and on the roofs themselves, says Wells Baker, Minto’s manager of sustainable development. In addition to markers, or decals, on the glass, they’ve included overhead balconies and curtains.

“Roof gardens are like a rest stop on the migratory highway,” says Paloma Plant, FLAP Canada’s program co-ordinator. “If you’re travelling 300 miles, you want food, water and shelter. Birds migrate by night and come down to feed during the day. If a roof garden has shrubs with bugs, or fountains, and dense foliage for shelter, they are attracted.”

The rooftop planned for 30 Roehampton, near Yonge and Eglinton, is enhanced with landscape features and planter beds. It should be popular with both residents and migratory birds, Mr. Baker says.

Retrofitting is labour intensive, and getting access to the windows by crane is a challenge, says George Turjanica, whose company, Convenience Group, has applied film to many commercial buildings, including City Hall and some schools. Newer buildings are easier as windows can be laminated at the manufacturing site.

Two condos by Daniels in Regent Park have the film with barely noticeable dots. At the moment, Mr. Turjanica’s crew is applying film to more condos — two more in Regent Park for Daniels Corp. and one at Minto’s 775 King St. project.

At $10 to $12 per square foot — applied on large window expanses that are often hard to access — the film isn’t cheap. Smaller developers are challenged to fund such retrofits.

Another method is window fritting. Although Minto applied film to the windows of 775 King St., two other projects — 30Roe and 88 Sheppard Ave. E. — will get fritting. The reason, says Wells Baker, Minto’s manager of sustainable development, is to maintain the building’s architectural integrity.

Fritting isn’t as effective in cutting reflection as film, Mr. Mesure says, because it’s not on the outside layer of glass. The optimal solution, he adds, would be to design buildings with minimal or non-existent glass on the first four or five storeys.

“The birds depend on us to change this.”

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