Sunday 16 June 2019

Country Matters: City birds battered to oblivion

Joe Kennedy

TORONTO is a city of glass canyons that shimmer in the sunlight, reflecting shadows and images, often with deadly effect. The great towers reach dizzyingly to the sky, express elevators whizz to offices at helicopter heights, an adrenalin buzz propelling giddy passengers to floors more than 50 storeys up.

Through these canyons exotic birds such as Golden-crowned Kinglets, Little Chickadees and plain nuthatches fly at their peril. A great many die.

This city, well known to me, is one of the world's deadliest places for birds flying into glass. Because of the great reflecting sheets on towers such as the Toronto Dominion Centre, large numbers of migratory songbirds, streaking through the skies from the northlands, can suddenly fall, plummeting to the streets below in clumps of feathers and bone. So many hit the glass that groups of volunteer birders search the ground in the financial district at dawn with paper bags and butterfly nets to rescue injured birds or, more likely, to pick up the dead bodies.

The bird patrollers are known as FLAP, or the Fatal Light Awareness Programme and they estimate one million or more birds die each year from skyscraper impact.

I remember the city from the Sixties when I first pushed through the revolving doors of the old Star newspaper building at King St West and when many of these glass-clad edifices began to reach for the sky, forming a wall along the north-western edge of Lake Ontario.

This barrier crosses major flight migratory paths, making the high-rises particularly lethal. While acknowledging this, one ornithologist, Professor Daniel Klem, says the city is now doing something to address the problem -- although FLAP is also taking legal routes against some properties citing legislation normally used to counter hunting and industrial hazards to birds.

One volunteer birder, Michael Mesure, pointed out some "killer buildings" to writer Ian Austin. Opposite one, a flock of gulls perched in trees waiting for their breakfast when small birds would hit the glass wall. The building's facade bewildered them by reflecting the trees which they perceived as habitat. This did not affect the permanent residents such as sparrows, feral pigeons and the said gulls. They are not codded.

The FLAP volunteers store the dead birds in a freezer, provided by a supportive city councillor, for statistical purposes. Although autumnal migration is under way the freezer is already almost full with the tragic dead.

FLAP says an effective method of containing the slaughter would be to cover the glass walls with finely perforated film with a repetitive pattern of small circles which the birds could see. (In Ireland, the bird charity BirdWatch Ireland offers, through its shop, stick-on outlines of predators such as kestrels to deter songbirds from window collision. Obviously these are household deterrents on a much smaller scale.)

A German glass manufacturer is now developing windows for high-rise buildings to include ultra violet light warning patterns that are invisible to humans but which can be seen by birds. This seems to be the way ahead but will developers and builders factor in the extra costs?

Some enforcement legislation may be required. If people were hitting buildings as birds are the problem would have been resolved long ago, says FLAP.

Quite so. It's a surprise that Canada, usually to the forefront in environmental matters, has taken so long to stop birds from bashing themselves to oblivion.

Sunday Independent

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