The Big Story

In Toronto and elsewhere, it's capitalism vs. the birds

In Toronto and elsewhere, it's capitalism vs. the birds

Posting in Architecture

Dead birds are falling from the sky in Canada's most populous city. Can avian-friendly skyscraper fixes save the city's ecosystem?

In 1989, Michael Mesure was running a gallery two hours north of Toronto when a friend told him he had read that birds were colliding with buildings in the city. The two of them drove downtown at 4 a.m. to see for themselves. "I stepped out of the car and there were birds all over the sidewalk," Mesure recalled. "I disappeared into the night, leaving my friend in the dust. I was shocked that something like this could be happening and nobody knew about it."

Birds can't see glass, and collisions with buildings are the biggest human-related cause of avian mortality after habitat destruction. In the United States alone, an estimated 1 billion birds die every year by crashing into windows. Most of these strikes occur during migratory season, when birds pass through unfamiliar landscapes or become disoriented by cities. All glass, anywhere, is deadly, from a cottage window to a plate glass skyscraper.

Because the evidence of bird strikes quickly disappears -- eaten by predators or swept up by building maintenance -- the problem is not always apparent. The cause of death is generally brain hemorrhage, which means that even when they fly away, the birds still can succumb to the impact.

Dr. Daniel Klem, a Professor of Ornithology at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, has been trying to draw attention to this problem since the 1970s. He said it is "insidious beyond description" because window strikes are indiscriminate, killing both the weak and the strong. "No population can afford to lose its fittest members, its breeders."

The unnecessary death of millions of birds is a tragedy for multiple reasons. Many species are already in decline. Birds pollinate plants, distribute seeds and control insect populations. Birdwatching is a multi-billion dollar industry -- according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, roughly 47 million Americans are considered birdwatchers. And migratory birds are incredible creatures. Take the Arctic Tern, for example, that flies from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back every year. Or the Swift, which almost never lands.

"There's going to be a day where we will finally feel the impact of the loss of these birds," Mesure noted. "Right now, everything feels OK, nothing seems to be going awry. But it will happen if this continues, and it's going to be a lot more difficult for people to sit on the wayside and turn a blind eye."

Toronto the deadly

The fourth largest city in North America, Toronto sits on one of the biggest migratory corridors on the planet, making it a prime killer of birds. What's more, there is glass everywhere you look, from condominiums to bank towers, and more going up all the time. For a migratory bird, it's like flying through an enormous house of mirrors.

After that fateful morning in 1989, Mesure traveled downtown more and more often to pick up dead and dying birds before dawn. People started to hear about him, and some came out to help. In 1993, a small group formed a non-profit organization called Fatal Light Awareness Program, or FLAP.

Today, FLAP's volunteers number close to 60 (Mesure is one of three full-time staff.) They target a number of sites in and around the city and pick up birds in the hours before and after daybreak, notably during migratory season. With their limited resources, they manage to collect 3,000 to 4,000 birds a year, a fraction of the million that are believed to die annually by crashing into Toronto's windows.

The dead go into a freezer at City Hall and eventually to the Royal Ontario Museum, which exhibits the tiny corpses once a year. The injured are either treated and released or else taken to a wildlife center for rehabilitation. FLAP also works to raise awareness, audit buildings to evaluate their danger zones and offer advice on how to minimize the risks to birds.

In the beginning, it seemed that nighttime was the biggest threat. Migratory birds frequently fly at night, using stars for navigation, and city lights confuse and attract them. In 2006, FLAP and the city of Toronto launched a campaign called "Lights Out Toronto!" encouraging people to shut off unnecessary lights at the end of the day.

Eventually they realized that the problem is three times worse during the day. Reflective windows are the most hazardous, since birds see mirror images of trees or the sky and fly into them. Transparent glass is also dangerous because birds try to pass through it to objects on the other side. A building doesn't have to be tall; the bulk of strikes take place in the first 50 feet.

In 2007, Toronto became the first city to draw up voluntary bird-friendly development guidelines. A policy planner named Kelly Snow helped draft the document. "Slowly we were raising awareness and bringing something out of the fringe to the mainstream," he said. In 2010, bird-friendly criteria -- such as muting reflections or treating glass with a pattern for the first 10 to 12 meters above grade --became mandatory for all new construction. Ordinances mandating bird-friendly design now also exist in San Francisco, Oakland and Cook County, Ill., while a U.S. representative from Illinois has introduced a bill requiring that all new federal public buildings incorporate bird-safe features.

However, these laws still leave the threat of existing buildings -- including 940,000 homes, institutions and office buildings in Toronto. On a recent summer day, Mesure walked me around the city, pointing out some of the more perilous ones. We stopped in front of a 51-story tower completed in 2009, proudly LEED-certified yet a bird-killer. The façade was a large expanse of glass with trees planted out front; looking in the window, I saw the trees reflected as though they were growing in the lobby.

We arrived at an architectural treasure: the Toronto Dominion Centre, an all-black grouping of towers by Mies Van Der Rohe. Until recently, the linkway was a hot spot, one of the most lethal places for birds in the city. As Mesure explained, birds trapped by the maze of buildings would fly close to the walls, where they felt safe, until they ended up in this dead-end alleyway and bounced up against the windows. He said, "The seagulls learned to wait there in packs and scavenge the fallen birds."

From the carrot to the stick

Little white circular decals now decorate the black glass walls of the linkway, the result of an unprecedented event: lawsuits against two corporate entities for causing bird collisions. These were the first cases of their kind in North America and probably the world.

It started in 2009, when a Toronto lawyer named Albert Koehl met a FLAP employee and learned about the problem. Koehl works for Ecojustice, a non-profit legal firm specializing in environmental issues, and he decided to see if there was a legal avenue for targeting the worst offenders. "We always think of the environment as out there," he said. "We have all these beautiful creatures right here in the city, and how do we see them? As displays at the Royal Ontario Museum when they're dead."

In March 2010, Ecojustice brought charges against Menkes Developments, the owners of Consilium Place (since sold), an office complex in an eastern suburb of Toronto. This site was at the top of FLAP's list -- Mesure recalled seeing 500 birds hit the windows in six hours while employees sat at picnic tables outside. "Birds were dropping onto the tables into their food," he said. A year later, Ecojustice laid charges against another developer, Cadillac Fairview, for the Yonge Corporate Centre in northern Toronto, where at least two birds of threatened species had died. (Cadillac Fairview also owns the Toronto Dominion Centre.)

Ecojustice's legal argument was unconventional: reflected light is radiation, and therefore these buildings were emitting a contaminant that caused harm to animals. If proven, it would mean that the defendants were violating the provincial Environmental Protection Act as well as the federal Species at Risk Act.

FLAP had spent years collecting bird corpses at both sites and trying to convince management to react. As soon as the trials began, both companies started to apply bird-friendly films to their windows. And in both cases the court acquitted the defendants, saying they had shown due diligence by applying the films. However, the case against Cadillac Fairview provided a crucial legal precedent: the judge ruled that light reflected from the building's windows did indeed lure birds to their deaths and was prohibited under provincial and federal law.

Koehl said that for this reason, the ruling was a victory: "We wanted that precedent -- we wanted companies not to be able to say, 'We're sympathetic but we're not going to do anything about it,' which is what they'd said for 15 years to Michael Mesure." Since then, Ecojustice has written to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment asking that it start enforcing the law. And they have written to company directors, warning that if they don't retrofit their buildings to prevent window strikes (by applying films or taking similar measures) they could be liable for migratory bird deaths.

I took the subway to the Yonge Corporate Centre, a group of three glass-clad buildings bordering a ravine. There were trees all around, and a muskrat strolled through the parking lot. The general manager, Patricia Poyntz, told me that she had been looking for a solution to the bird-strike problem since 2007, when a tenant complained that a cardinal was dive-bombing a window. Poyntz called Mesure, who recommended a company called Convenience Group, who came and applied a film similar to the ones on bus shelters. Though it worked, it obscured the view, and the tenant asked that it be removed. "It was our understanding there was nothing else on the market," Poyntz said.

Now she showed me the new decals they installed last year on the worst wall, a grid of little white dots that went up to the sixth floor. The retrofit cost the company just more than $100,000, and Poyntz was satisfied with the result. She told me that since the trial other building managers have called her to ask what was the minimum they could do to avoid being sued. "It's like they're scared to be next on Ecojustice's list."

Creating visual noise

Beyond awareness and policy, the bird strike issue requires a product -- some kind of window covering or "visual noise" that birds can see and people can live with. As Klem said, "In the 1970s when I started searching for solutions, I remember thinking: if you don't come up with something that doesn't inhibit how people look out their windows, you're going to lose."

His research shows that most birds won't fly into surfaces covered with a contrasting pattern where the elements are spaced no more than two inches apart horizontally or four inches apart vertically. The pattern should be placed on the outside surface or the reflection can still dominate.

Companies from Austria to the United States are making bird-friendly glass for new construction that is screenprinted, acid-etched or treated with ceramic frit. Knowing that birds can see ultraviolet light, a German company developed a glass with a UV-reflective coating they say is visible to birds and invisible to humans. And a few organizations, including the American Bird Conservancy, now sell easy-to-apply, bird-friendly products for windows in residential homes.

In Toronto, after years of trial and error, the Convenience Group seems to have cornered the suddenly burgeoning market for retrofitting buildings with their "Feather Friendly" films. These are the small white dots that now cover the windows at the Yonge Corporate Centre and Consilium Place. The company's founder, George Turjanica, said, "We were lucky enough to be there with the right solution at the right time."

I met Turjanica in the city of Markham, northeast of Toronto, where the reaction to the bird strike problem has been exemplary, thanks to the efforts of one concerned politician. In 2009, Markham hired the Convenience Group to apply a patterned film on a municipal building that was causing more than 100 collisions a year. Immediately, the number plunged to almost zero.

We went to see the Hilton Hotel, where an installation of Feather Friendly film was underway. You could not build a building more deadly to birds if you tried: highly reflective glass and transparent windows next to a tranquility garden with trees and water. A pair of workers were applying the film, a process not unlike kids putting temporary tattoos on their arms. One held the film on the glass while another ran a moistened squeegee over it. Then they peeled it away, leaving white dots stuck to the window. The workers told us they had just finished covering one window when a bird flew at it and changed course at the last moment, grazing the adjacent, uncovered pane. Though stunned, the bird was unhurt.

With any luck, these dots or their equivalent will become as ubiquitous as handicapped parking some day. "What a fight this has been, trying to get people to take this issue seriously," Klem said. "For the life of me, I can't figure it out. Nobody wants birds to die."

Photos: Sara Scharf/FLAP Canada

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Amy Serafin

Contributing Writer

Amy Serafin has written for The New York Times, Associated Press, Wallpaper, National Public Radio and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Formerly, she was editor-in-chief of Where Paris magazine. She is based in Paris, France. Disclosure