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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

NBD Special (Part IX): We Can Save Millions of Wild Birds, and Here’s How

I Am Proud of What May Be the World’s Very First Bird-Friendly Building; May It Lead the Way

Published 01/24/12

(Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a two-month series of blogs written by Barry from Canada and, from her perch at our Sacramento headquarters in Northern California, Senior Program Associate Monica Engebretson. Their “blog-off” is part of Born Free USA’s celebration of National Bird Day, which every year falls on Jan. 5.)

Barry writes:

At the end of January I will be attending a courtroom in Toronto where a company that manages tall buildings covered with reflective glass will be pitted against an environmental lawyer who is representing a provincial conservation organization. Having heard various witnesses last year, the judge will now listen to summary arguments. One side will explain why those who manage a tall building that kills hundreds of migratory songbirds each day should not be found legally complicit. The other side will explain why, for the first time in Canadian law, those who manage a building should be held responsible for the deaths of the birds.

Markham, Ontario, Councillor
Valerie Burke stands before
the bird-free City Hall.

The birds in question are migratory songbirds — thrushes, woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, orioles, sparrows, vireos, wrens, hummingbirds, grosbeaks, kinglets, flycatchers — dozens of species, some common, some rare, some in serious decline, but all supposedly protected under federal legislation, the Migratory Birds Convention Act.

Had the building management been caught and properly documented shooting or trapping these birds, they would have been charged by the government and convicted, assuming the evidence held up.

Ah, but what the conservationists are arguing is that the killing was preventable, or at least could have been mitigated, and was, if not as blatant as a shotgun blast, still illegal. That’s because the Migratory Birds Convention Act prohibits “emissions” that can harm birds. And the “emission” in question is light: to be precise, the images of sky and surroundings being reflected by the building’s mirror-glass exterior, into the environment. It is those reflections that confuse birds. They focus not on the glass, but on the reflected sky.

But almost all buildings have glass windows, and almost all glass windows can, under correct conditions, present reflections. Even ordinary house windows can and do kill birds. Cities including Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto have initiated programs to reduce nocturnal lighting that can attract many of these bird species — who migrate during the night and are attracted to their injury or deaths by bright lights, especially during foggy or overcast nights — but what can one do about reflections?

While habitat destruction still constitutes the major threat to birds, in North America collisions with buildings come second, with an estimated 1 billion killed per year by striking windows, compared to 174 million killed hitting power lines (the kind that allow me to write this, of course), 120 million to hunting, 118 million to house cats, 80 million to collisions with vehicles, 72 million to indirect pesticide poisoning, 50 million with collisions with those communication towers we see everywhere, 2 million to nuisance bird control, 400,000 to wind turbines, 100,000 to electrocution and 20,000 to scientific research, although these figures are based on work done a few years ago. Whatever the numbers, they’re huge.

And that brings me to Markham, where I live, a city perched on the northern edge of the much larger city of Toronto. Here, we have enlightenment. We have a councillor, Valerie Burke, a dedicated environmentalist who fights hard to diminish the harm we do to animals and the environment (she has just spearheaded a “meatless Monday” at Markham city Hall’s cafeteria). One of the proud accomplishments she and others have made happen is a truly bird-friendly building.

The building is a municipal structure whose front is pretty well clear glass. In spite of it not being a high-rise, it was responsible for the deaths of many birds each year. But the town retrofitted its windows with transparent coverings, some of an increasing number commercially available (CollidEscape is one example) that in no way bother human visitors but do make the glass visible to birds. They no longer hit this building. It makes me proud to live in Markham.

Bird-blogging off,

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