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Originally published Saturday, November 3, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Glass-towered Toronto tries to make city less brutal to birds

There is no precise ranking of the world's most deadly cities for migratory birds, but Toronto, with a downtown full of glass towers, is considered a top contender for the title.

The New York Times

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TORONTO — In the shadow of the black towers of a bank's downtown headquarters here was an almost indistinguishable puff of dark-gray fluff on the sidewalk.

It was the body of a golden-crowned kinglet, an unlucky one that had crashed into the Toronto-Dominion Center building somewhere above.

There is no precise ranking of the world's most deadly cities for migratory birds, but Toronto is considered a top contender for the title. When a British nature-documentary crew wanted to film birds killed by crashes into glass, Daniel Klem Jr., an ornithologist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., who has studied the issue for about 40 years, directed them here, where huge numbers of birds streaking through the skies one moment can be plummeting toward the concrete the next.

"They're getting killed everywhere and anywhere where there's even the smallest garage window," Klem said. "In the case of Toronto, perhaps because of the number of buildings and the number of birds, it's more dramatic."

So many birds hit the glass towers of Canada's most populous city that volunteers scour the ground of the financial district for them in the predawn darkness each morning. They carry paper bags and butterfly nets to rescue injured birds from the impending stampede of pedestrian feet or, all too often, to pick up the bodies of dead ones.

The group behind the bird patrol, the Fatal Light Awareness Program, known as FLAP, estimates that 1 million to 9 million birds die every year from hitting buildings in the Toronto area. The group's founder single-handedly recovered about 500 dead birds in one morning.

Toronto's modern skyline began to rise in the 1960s, giving it a high proportion of modern, glass-clad structures, forming a long wall along the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. That barrier crosses several major migratory flight paths, the first large structures birds would encounter coming south from the northern wilderness.

Friends in the courts

Though those factors make Toronto's buildings particularly lethal, Klem was also quick to say that the city also leads North America when it comes to addressing the problem.

After years of conducting rescue and recovery missions and prodding the city to include bird safety in its design code, FLAP recently has begun using the courts to help keep birds alive. It is participating in two legal cases using laws normally meant to protect migratory birds from hunting and industrial hazards to prosecute the owners of two problematic buildings.

Briskly walking on a recent morning with a volunteer bird patrol, Michael Mesure, who founded FLAP 19 years ago, pointed out many examples of killer buildings. As he neared one spot on the eastern edge of the financial district, he pointed to a gaggle of seagulls sitting in trees across the street from an office building. They were waiting, he said, to dine on the smaller birds maimed or killed by the building.

The building has a glass facade that disorients birds by reflecting the surrounding trees.

The victims are largely songbirds. Perhaps because of familiarity, the urbanites of the bird world — house sparrows, pigeons and gulls — are much less prone to crashing into glass, Klem said.

All the birds collected by FLAP, dead or alive, go into paper bags. Though there were no survivors that recent morning, the merely stunned or frightened would have been released in a park near the shore of Lake Ontario. The injured would have been taken to one of two animal-rehabilitation centers outside the city.

The dead birds, with the location of their deaths marked on their bags, first end up in a freezer at FLAP headquarters, part of a sympathetic city councilor's offices. Although the autumn migration was barely under way, the freezer was already close to full. Its contents ranged from owls to hummingbirds, and the vividness of their plumage was generally offset by the gruesomeness of their smashed heads.

Building covers

One especially effective, if unpopular, method of reducing the threat to birds, Mesure said, is simply to cover the outside of windows up to the height of adjacent trees with the finely perforated plastic film often used to turn transit buses into rolling billboards. The film can be printed with advertising or decorative patterns, although the group has found that a repetitive pattern of small circles made from the same adhesive plastic is both effective and less likely to prompt aesthetic objections.

For new buildings, the solution can be as simple as etching patterns into the glass. A German glass company is developing windows that may take advantage of birds' ability to see ultraviolet light, by including warning patterns invisible to humans.

But even after nearly two decades of drawing attention to the problem, Mesure acknowledged that architects and developers rarely consider the threat to birds. Along the morning search route was a hotel that was one of the last buildings approved before Toronto's new rules took effect. Its extensive use of irregularly shaped reflective glass will most likely make it "quite lethal to birds," Mesure said.

Wryly, he also noted a statue at its base depicting a dragon covered in small birds.

The first decision in the court cases, which both involve office complexes outside downtown, is expected on Nov. 15. Though the charges were brought under federal and provincial laws, the cases are being prosecuted by Ecojustice, a nonprofit environmental-law group, rather than the government, which Canadian law permits.

The effect of the cases is already obvious at Consilium Place, a suburban complex of three office towers involved in the first prosecution. Consilium sits between Lake Ontario and a river valley that is a major resting spot for migratory birds. The location and the reflective glass exterior on two of the buildings, which is helpful in reducing heating and air-conditioning costs but deceiving to birds, make it among the city's most dangerous structures for birds, Mesure said.

The former owner, Menkes, consistently rejected proposed solutions on the basis of cost and aesthetics, he said. "We tried to get them engaged in this issue and really didn't get anywhere."

Menkes declined to comment for this report. But since the complex was sold this year, the new owner, Kevric Real Estate, has begun to apply a pattern of small white dots on the windows. While far from complete, the measure was already having an effect. A freezer for storing dead birds, which the new landlord had placed in an underground parking garage, contained only a dozen remains, far fewer than usual during a migratory period.

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