The Unfriendly Skies: Millions of Birds Die Each Year When They Fly Into Glass-Clad Buildings

Solutions exist, but aesthetic concerns and cost often stand in the way.

blue-headed vireo
The blue-headed vireo is one of the many species of birds that’s routinely found dead after colliding with Toronto’s skyscrapers. (Anthony Mercieca / Getty)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

If you’ve ever smashed your face as you sauntered into a clear glass door you thought was open, you know more than you think about the perils faced by migratory birds.

All sorts of windows and reflective surfaces are dangerous and confusing to birds, none more so than those that fill the skies of major cities around the globe. The New York Times recently reported on the situation in Toronto, which is ranked as one of the most deadly cities for migratory birds. It’s not completely clear why that’s the case, although The Times noted that Toronto’s modern skyline began to develop in the 1960s when architects were cladding most high rises in glass.

Professor Daniel Klem Jr., an ornithologist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, has been studying the bird-collision phenomenon for 40 years. “We’re not birds, so we don’t see what they see,” Klem said to TakePart. “We don’t know if it's a see-through effect or what. The birds behave as if the glass is invisible and it doesn’t matter how fit, or unfit, a particular bird is.”

MORE: Turbine Trouble: Just How Many Migratory Birds Do Wind Farms Kill?

But why is this such a problem in Toronto in particular? “It’s not that birds aren’t dying in other cities, it’s that people aren’t looking for them,” said Klem. “There’s a story I always tell about a guy who moved to Denver. He asked the local Audubon Society if the city was having any problems with bird deaths and they told him it didn’t happen there. He then called a window-washing company who told him they were finding dead birds all the time. So it’s who’s interested. But it’s a problem everywhere—in Germany, The Netherlands, Australia. This is not a new phenomenon, everyone is just becoming more aware it.”

Michael Mesure, Executive Director of Fatal Light Awareness Program, or FLAP, told TakePart that he’s been fascinated with birds since childhood. “I found out about the problem of birds colliding with lit structures in 1989 and it surprised me,” he said. “So I got up early one morning during migration and, sure enough, there were dead birds on the sidewalks. By 1993, a small group of us decided to create FLAP.”

The organization is mainly volunteer driven and approximately 60 bird lovers spend the bulk of their time doing rescues. “They go out in field and monitor sites, like office cores, and rescue the birds they can find and create data on what they find,” said Mesure. “We try to rehabilitate those who are alive and eventually release them back out into the wild.”

After years of struggling to get their message out, FLAP was approached by Ecojustice, a charitable organization that’s “dedicated to defending Canadians' right to a healthy environment.” They’re now participating in two precedent-setting cases involving office complexes near downtown Toronto. “We never envisioned ourselves sitting in a courtroom,” said Mesure, “that was never our goal. But Ecojustice approached us and saw value in taking these two corporations to court.”

One of the office complexes, Consilium Place, has started to apply a series of white dots to their building and Mesure said there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of collisions. He added that, “high frequency devices and noises were thought to be potential solutions but they don’t work in terms of bird collisions. You have to create visual noise on the glass by applying patterns. Birds look at a reflective surface and if that surface is disrupted by pattern, it then becomes a solid object to them.”

“And the dots are also aesthetically pleasing,” said Mesure. "Our biggest battle in getting people to apply a pattern has involved aesthetics and cost. We’ve now demonstrated that you can address the aesthetic issue without interfering with architectural integrity. The costs are high right now, but the more people get involved, the more solutions will develop, and then costs will come down very quickly."

If you’re unsure whether or not this all sounds like an important issue, reflect on this: FLAP estimates that one million to nine million birds die every year as a result of building impacts—and that’s just in Toronto.

Do you think the government and wildlife groups should be doing more to alleviate this problem?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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