Bird losses throughout our planet are mounting. One of the reasons are the tragic fatalities caused by window collisions. Here we look at the important work of the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), operating throughout the world and Canada in an effort to educate people, organizations and governments in an effort to create bird safe urban environments.
Can you tell us something about how important birds are to our environment?
Birds provide a host of beneficial ecosystem services, free of charge. For example, they are efficient pollinators, provide tree-planting services, and control outbreaks of insect pests. Birds like vultures help stop the spread of disease by removing the carcasses of sick animals and destroying ingested pathogens with their strong stomachs. It’s easy to take birds for granted, until the health of the environment and bird populations degrade to the point that we are left without these services and have to pay the consequences.
How are birds endangered in our cities? Is there a prime time - early morning, or late at night for window collisions?
One of the biggest threats that birds face in urban areas is the risk of a deadly collision with reflective and transparent glass. During spring and fall migration, we see an amazing diversity of bird species in the city that we wouldn’t see at any other time of year. To a migrating songbird, greenspace in urban areas can look like a promising place to rest and refuel on their long journey. In large urban areas like Toronto, the nighttime issue of light pollution also interplays to create a deadly situation for birds. Many songbirds including warblers, vireos, thrushes, and sparrows migrate at night. The bright glow of city lights at night can disorient them, inadvertently drawing them into the city.
The danger with birds finding themselves in close proximity to glass is that they are unable to distinguish the reflected sky and habitat in many buildings from the real thing or they see a clear passageway through glass. Because of their inability to recognize glass as something they can’t fly through, they often collide at full speed.
Collisions with glass can happen at any time of the day, but FLAP has found that collisions are most frequent in the morning hours. This is probably because birds are especially active at this time of day as they move around looking for food. Birds have very high metabolisms, and since they haven’t eaten all night, they urgently need to replenish their energy reserves.
What is the current bird safe strategy of cities in the world and particularly in Toronto? Do you feel that developers and the city can do more to protect the birds?
Although there is still so much work to be done to mitigate the mass mortality of birds in urban areas around the world, huge progress has been made in getting this issue on people’s radars in cities across North America.
Toronto was the very first city to adopt bird-friendly building guidelines in 2007. In 2010, bird-friendly guidelines for new construction became mandatory as part of the Toronto Green Standard. Toronto’s guidelines have been continuously revisited over the last decade and strengthened each time. 2020 will see the launch of the new wave of mandatory requirements, which will be the strongest and most protective yet.
The launch of the guidelines in Toronto sparked the adoption of similar guidelines in other major cities across North America. For example, Markham and Calgary in Canada, and San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City in the United States have also adopted bird-friendly building strategies to make new and/or existing buildings safer for birds. FLAP is also currently assisting cities like Ottawa and Saskatoon develop similar guidelines and standards for their regions.
Earlier this year, with extensive input from FLAP as a technical committee member, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) published their first standards for bird-friendly building design. We hope that many municipalities across Canada which don’t currently have their own bird-friendly building legislation will choose the CSA standard as a default for any new constructions or retrofits to existing buildings. Ideally, in addition to retrofitting buildings that pose a significant risk to birds, we would like to see that all buildings get designed with birds in mind as the default, not an exception.
Are urban nesting places disappearing? If so what can be done about that?
Suitable nesting habitat for birds in general is disappearing, and habitat loss and degradation are implicated in the decline of many bird species. In urban areas, we generally find relatively tolerant species which are ok with the daily hustle and bustle of city life, or have adapted to nesting on human made structures, like barn swallows nesting on bridges or chimney swifts nesting in chimneys. But there are many species which can’t adapt to city life because they require larger tracts of habitat to breed, which simply do not exist in urban areas.
Creating little oases of natural habitat in the city with nesting opportunities and food sources is certainly important to provide nesting habitat for some birds, and a buffet for the hordes of birds that will stop during their migration. But if we want to provide habitat for more than just the most tolerant species, it’s critical to create a network of large, intact naturalized areas to provide a safe and suitable home for species which require more space. Rouge National Urban Park is an excellent and impressive example of such an initiative, right here in the GTA. When we bring nature back into the city, we also need to make sure that surrounding areas are bird-safe too, to prevent the new tenants from becoming victims of window collisions or other urban dangers.
In window collisions there are fatalities but there are also injured birds…where are they taken, and what kind of injuries can be healed?
FLAP collects anywhere from 3,000 to 5,500 birds each year, and about 30-40% are found injured. Victims of window collisions require the specialized assessment and treatment of a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. In Toronto, FLAP works closely with the Toronto Wildlife Centre.
Many small birds may sustain numerous injuries from the impact of a collision, including head trauma, fractures, broken beaks, painful eye injuries called corneal ulcers, and other injuries which require prompt medical treatment. Once a bird is brought into the Toronto Wildlife Centre by FLAP’s volunteer drivers, the extent of injury is assessed by trained and experienced professionals. Birds in care are then put on a tailored treatment plan, with the end goal of getting them back in the wild and continuing their migration as soon as they are ready.
Birds are extremely delicate, but they also seem to be capable of amazing resiliency. Many of us at FLAP involved in bird rescue can probably recall a case that we initially thought was hopeless, only to see a bird make an incredible recovery. The key is to get them the help they need as soon as possible, which is why FLAP relies heavily on a network of responsive volunteer drivers to transport injured birds to wildlife rehabilitation facilities.
What is the best way to report a bird fatality or injury? And if an injured bird found what is the best protocol?
If you come across a bird that has been killed or injured in a window collision, report your observation (along with a photo if possible) on FLAP’s Global Bird Collision Mapper (https://birdmapper.org/app/). Your record will become part of a global database to help us better understand the issue and to inform effective advocacy and policy efforts.
A bird that has survived a collision has often sustained injuries that are not readily apparent, even if they simply appear ‘stunned’. The best course of action is to safely contain the bird and then contact your local wildlife rehabilitation facility. Here are the steps you should take if you find a stunned or injured bird:
- Find an unwaxed paper bag, or a small cardboard box with air holes already poked in. Roll up a clean tissue or paper towel into a tight log, so that the bird has something soft to perch on.
- Gently place the bird inside the bag or box and close the top securely.
- Put the bird in a quiet, dark, warm, safe place. Minimize contact, and do not offer it anything to eat or drink.
Contact your local wildlife rehabilitation facility. They are in the best position to assess your situation and recommend next steps.
What are the key migration periods in the year? How is climate change affecting that?
Bird-window collisions are at their peak during spring and fall migration, which is when FLAP runs bird rescue patrols. Spring patrols run from March to early June and fall patrols run from mid-August to early November. Many species migrate at different times, depending on where they’re coming from and where they’re going. For example, during fall migration in August and September, we find many birds such as warblers and vireos which have spent the summer up north and are now on their way to wintering grounds in Central and South America, or the Caribbean. Moving into October and November, we will start seeing the hordes of sparrows and kinglets, which may only be migrating a few hundred kilometers south to spend the winter in the northern United States.
Climate change is already impacting birds in a variety of ways, including the timing of their migration. As springs get warmer, the best time to start breeding is getting earlier and earlier, and as a result many birds are arriving to the breeding grounds earlier than they did in the past. Not arriving ‘on time’ could mean missing the peak of insect food that parent birds will need to feed their hungry chicks. In fact, scientists have found that many species haven’t been able to adapt their migration schedules enough to be able to breed at the perfect time and have suffered population declines as a result.
Tell us about the Annual Bird Layout installation that takes place at the ROM each year and people’s reaction to it.
Although FLAP has been able to save an impressive number of window collision survivors over the years through our bird rescue work, many birds are killed from the impact. FLAP aims to give these fallen birds another life through education and research purposes, and one of many such uses is FLAP’s Annual Bird Layout.
The Annual Bird Layout is an awareness campaign held at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) where volunteers meticulously arrange the previous year's window collision victims for public viewing. Many of the people who visit the layout as they explore the ROM are caught quite off guard; many have no idea that this problem exists or are shocked that it happens at such an enormous scale. Seeing thousands of tiny, colourful songbirds, lying motionless within arm’s reach, and knowing that they were killed right in your city, touches people in a very particular way. It’s also eye-opening for people to learn that these deaths are preventable, and that there are effective and affordable solutions to stop this from happening at their own home and workplace.
What can homeowners do to keep birds safe?
Two of the most significant dangers to birds are predation from domestic and feral cats and collisions with windows. Homeowners can help keep birds safe by keeping their cats indoors (it’s much safer for your cat too!) and taking steps to prevent window collisions at home. The first step to preventing collisions is to provide birds with visual cues that alert them to the presence of glass. There are lots of easy and affordable techniques you can use, but it’s important to make sure markers are spaced closely enough, are placed on the outside surface of the glass, and follow FLAP’s BirdSafe® Building Standards for visual markers. In addition to treating windows, move bird attractants such as feeders and bird baths as close to the window as possible (half a meter or closer) and move interior houseplants away from windows.
FLAP relies on volunteers. What are the opportunities in volunteering with FLAP?
There is a lot that goes into carrying out FLAP’s mission of keeping birds safe in urban environments. FLAP volunteers have a wide variety of skills, backgrounds, and interests, and there are sure to be suitable volunteer opportunities for anyone who wants to help birds.
Some volunteer opportunities relate directly to FLAP’s bird rescue work. Bird rescue volunteers patrol certain routes during spring and fall migration to document window collision victims and rescue survivors. Volunteer drivers help transport injured birds to wildlife rehabilitation facilities so they can get the medical attention they need. Some volunteers work with the public and give educational presentations. Others promote FLAP’s work on social media, serve on FLAP’s Board of Directors, or help with fundraising, advocacy, newsletters, graphic design, IT, and many other things. If you’re interested in volunteering with FLAP, you can learn more at https://flap.org/volunteer.php.
FLAP is a worldwide organization – can you tell us about its overall roots and also when FLAP Canada launched?
Prior to 1993, the issue of bird-window collisions was not widely recognized as a major conservation issue. A group of dedicated, like-minded people saw firsthand the enormous scale of bird mortality in Toronto and were moved to do something about it. They began focusing their efforts on patrolling the downtown streets in the early morning hours to document the victims as proof of the issue and to rescue the living. The group grew, and became more and more organized, until FLAP was officially launched in 1993. Three of the founding members of FLAP are still integral parts of the organization: Michael Mesure, our Executive Director, Paloma Plant, our Program Coordinator and Irene Fedun, our Touching Down newsletter editor.
Finally, how can we help improve the situation from the top down, politically?
Political leaders need to know that major conservation issues like bird-window collisions exist in their jurisdiction, and matter to their voters. Contact your local representative, explaining the issue and encouraging the adoption of bird-friendly building policies. Cite the other cities across North America which have already made a bold move to protect birds from dangers in the built environment. If your city has approved bird-friendly building standards, you can also write to show your support, or encourage that optional measures become mandatory requirements.