Michael Mesure was visiting an office building in Scarborough in the early 2000s when it began to hail birds. Tenants were sitting outside at picnic tables when hundreds began dropping from the sky, some landing in laps and others in lunches. It was a disturbing and sobering moment, one that helped push his movement forward.
Mesure is the founder of FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) Canada, a non-profit organization that works to protect migratory birds in urban settings across the country. He says he lost count after finding more than 500 dead birds over a six hour period that day — a result of the building’s gleaming glass exterior.
According to FLAP’s database, an estimated one to 10 birds die per building, per year. The City of Toronto currently has over 950,000 registered buildings, which pose a threat to over nine million birds annually. A research article published this year found that between 100 million to 1 billion migrating birds are killed from building collisions across North America each year.
The vast majority of collisions occur up to 16 metres above grade (roughly the first five storeys) since that’s the height of a typical tree reflected in the glass exterior of a building.
“What people don’t realize is that when we’re sleeping at night, there are hundreds of thousands of birds streaming over our rooftops just over a single hour period,” Mesure said.
He and his team of 50 to 60 volunteers regularly roam the streets of Toronto in daylight and darkness in search of injured and dead birds. More than half of those found are dead, but many of the wounded are rescued and released back into the wild. Mesure says several species populations have dropped by 40 to 80 per cent since the mid 1970s.
“These are not seagulls, geese or sparrows that the average person pictures. These are neotropical migratory songbirds passing through the region to go to their nesting sites in Central Ontario,” he said.
Toronto sits on one of the busiest migratory corridors in the world. The birds use the nearby lakes and ravines as visual travel cues, but quickly become disoriented when the signals aren’t there when they arrive. Mesure explains that enough time has not yet passed for those maps in their brains to change course.
Though the news is not all somber. In 2007, the City of Toronto introduced its Bird Friendly Development Guidelines in an effort to make new and existing buildings less hazardous to migratory birds.
Developers are now required to incorporate bird-safe elements into all new residential and commercial buildings under Tier 1 of the Toronto Green Standard. Bird-friendly design guidelines also exist in other cities across North America, including Calgary, New York City and San Francisco.
Most new construction buildings must have some form of treatment applied to the glass to alert birds that they’re heading toward a solid object. One of the most popular techniques is fritted glass, where the material is decorated with ceramic dots or a distinct pattern. Walk past 33 Yonge Street and City Hall (below) in Toronto or 8100 Warden Avenue in Mississauga and you can spot the markers affixed to the windows.
Despite the progress, Mesure says a few design exceptions are being made to large-scale projects (both residential and commercial) for aesthetic reasons, since some developers believe the patterns will affect sales.
“More sophisticated patterns are being introduced that are so visually non-intrusive that it’s a bit of a futile argument,” Mesure said. “But for the moment the industry is winning that battle. They’re getting those exceptions in those areas.”
Arnold Glas, a German-based manufacturing company, has pioneered what could soon become the ultimate solution: Ornilux. The transparent glass is treated with a patterned, ultraviolet coating that is visible to birds but imperceptible to humans. After much testing, the company found a UV frequency that birds quickly veered away from. The product (called Ornilux Mikado) is now available in Europe and North America.
While Mesure says markers and products like Ornilux will save the bulk of birds, the majority of buildings in Toronto still don’t require them, since they were constructed before the new guidelines were implemented. If birds primarily run into a condo’s south side, for instance, that’s where the markers would need to be displayed. It’s a solution, he says, that is far more affordable than bird-proofing the entire building.
“I’ve noticed an improvement in existing construction where a noted history of bird collision has happened,” Mesure said. “If developers follow the rule of thumb that research says works, there’s no doubt that they’ll be saving birds’ lives.”