A brightly lit city is like a black hole for night-travelling birds. None can escape its gravitational pull.
It’s hard to know what to care about. Our terrible world offers plenty of options, and, considered all together, they are overwhelming and exhausting, which is maybe why most of us refuse to pay much attention to anything that isn’t directly in front of our faces getting in the way.
This sad fact of human limitation—our wilful confinement to the immediate and obvious—is bad news for animals, whose main skill sets are sneakiness and hiding (swaggering city raccoons not included). Among the all-time great hiders are the millions of birds that pass through the GTA twice annually, who fly by night to avoid detection.
Toronto lies at the confluence of two major flyways, making it a “bird super-highway,” according to Bridget Stutchbury, author of Silence of the Songbirds. Migrating birds should simply slip past us in the dark. But because they suffer from a condition called “fatal light attraction,” they get stuck on our street lamps and spotlights.
It’s not clear why birds can’t resist light bulbs, but one study suggests that artificial lighting interferes with their internal magnetic compass. So, technically, nocturnal birds aren’t attracted to light, but they reflexively switch to daytime travel mode and then can’t switch back.
Whatever the reason, a brightly lit city is like a black hole for night-travelling birds—none can escape its gravitational pull. After getting sucked in, they spend the night circling obsessively. In the morning, they drop exhausted to the treetops, frantic to replenish their energy reserves. But as they hunt for insects, they inadvertently batter themselves to death on buildings covered in glass.
Think of the urban canopy as a coral reef and the built environment as a deadly hall of mirrors. Birds don’t fly into windows because they’re not looking where they’re going; they see a reflection of a tree and they want to land on it. Unfortunately for them, birds don’t understand the concept of glass.
“Daytime strikes occur because birds cannot perceive images reflected in glass as reflections, and thus will fly into windows that they think are trees or sky,” explains Kelly Snow, an environmental planner with the City of Toronto.
Before you start feeling smug about your own glass awareness, let’s be real for a minute: glass is confusing. You probably don’t understand it any better than a bird does. For one thing, glass is an amorphous solid, which means that it is neither a liquid nor a solid but something in between. Humans just bounce off it, but the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) estimates that at least one million migratory birds die each year in Toronto from window collisions.
Every spring and fall the City of Toronto partners with FLAP to operate a public awareness campaign called “Lights Out Toronto!” (exclamation mark included), hoping to convince people to turn off the damn lights at night. Heads up: the fall migration just started and runs until mid-October, so now’s the time to reduce light pollution.
No matter how much we reduce light pollution, a lot of migrating birds are going to be captured by the bright city lights. Building owners need to make their windows more identifiable for those birds.
Toronto company Convenience Group Inc. has developed a bird deterrent technology called Feather Friendly, which is a set of adhesive markers that building owners can place on the exterior surface of windows and still allow in 98 per cent of the light. (They have to be placed on the outside: interior markers don’t reduce glare, for obvious reasons.) The company website points out that its product will save your maintenance staff all that time spent finding and collecting bird corpses.
In 2012, the environmental advocacy group Ecojustice brought a case against the owners of the Yonge Corporate Centre in north Toronto, charging them with “the offence of causing animals to be in distress by having or using highly reflective glass…that caused the death of small birds.” The judge ruled that such windows violate Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act and Canada’s Species at Risk Act. The owner of the buildings, Cadillac Fairview, was acquitted because it had already begun work to install a window film that would deter birds, but the legal precedent was nonetheless established.
The Toronto Green Standard outlines the bird-deterrence rules that developers must meet. Since 2010, the windows of all new buildings must be clearly marked up to 12 metres, the approximate height of mature trees. (In fact, 16 metres is more realistic, and the rule will likely change.) As far as the City is concerned, you don’t necessarily have to cover your windows with stickers to make them bird-friendly. You can also install an awning, which will reduce reflection.
Private residences are as much to blame as commercial buildings. “Homes, collectively, are killing more birds than commercial buildings,” says Michael Mesure, FLAP Canada’s executive director.
But in residential neighbourhoods, windows are nowhere near as murderous to birds as cats. Cats are lifelong serial killers who can take out a dozen birds in one night. Don’t let your feline companion commit avian mayhem—keep it housebound. Besides, an indoor cat lives twice as long, and has way better karma.
The world is a cruel place for colourful creatures with wings. Just because they’re shy doesn’t mean they deserve to die. It’s hard to know what to care about, but you can do worse than birds.