Some adapt surprisingly well – like the peregrine falcons nesting in Toronto’s skyscrapers. But for many birds, the concrete jungle can be a deathtrap
by Ted Cheskey
Many years ago, I received a phone call from a teacher seeking advice on how to extricate an owl from his fireplace. Upon entering the house, my heart sank when I saw a sooty and emaciated eastern screech owl, barely able to stand, behind the screened fireplace opening. The teacher said it had been there for several days and that he was afraid of the “thing.” I opened the fireplace, reached in and gently picked the owl up, feeling no flesh on its sternum. It died at my home a few hours later – a victim of ignorance. A simple mesh chimney cap would have saved this bird’s life; removing the bird while it was still vigorous would have too.
Life in the city is not easy for most birds. On Christmas Day 1992, a friend spotted a great horned owl in a Waterloo park entangled in kite string 20 metres in the air between two large trees. Luckily a fire station was nearby. I explained to the firemen that I needed to use the fire truck’s extension ladder to rescue an owl. The truck arrived quickly, and one of the firemen climbed into the hold at the end of the ladder while another extended the hydraulic ladder level with the bird. The burly fireman looked down at me, unsure of what to do. “Give me a burning house with three kids in it and I’ll go in and get ’em all,” he proclaimed, “but would you mind coming up here yourself and freeing it.” I obliged him and carefully cut the kite line, wound tightly around the wing-pit of this poor dangling bird. The owl was exhausted and did not struggle. I took it home, where it spent Christmas in a box. The next day I took the owl to the veterinary school at the University of Guelph. The bird recovered, but its wing had to be amputated.
Kite string and chimneys are just two sources of danger for birds that migrate through, or live in, urban areas. Office towers, windows, power lines and other hazards unique to the built environment are particularly catastrophic. Four out of five bird species in Ontario migrate into and out of the province every fall and spring. During the migration seasons, millions of birds fly into cities for the first time. Most songbirds actually migrate at night, and artificial lights confuse them, causing them to fly into windows. On overcast or foggy nights the death toll is staggering. The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) has collected more than 140 different bird species in Toronto alone, almost all killed when they collided with office tower windows. In fact, FLAP estimates that the office towers in Toronto’s financial district kill at least 10,000 migrating birds every year and that between 100 million and one billion birds die in North America annually due to collisions with windows. FLAP’s work influenced Toronto City Council to pass a bylaw in 2006 to reduce structural and lighting hazards. With the city’s support, FLAP also launched a Lights Out Toronto campaign, which encourages people to turn off office lights, use task lighting or blinds when working at night and take similar measures at home. (Visit the FLAP website at www.flap.org/new/nestegg.htm for other ways to help prevent bird deaths in the city).
However, some species, and the odd individual bird, seem to adapt better to urban living than others. Mark Peck, keeper of the Ontario Nest Record Scheme for the Royal Ontario Museum, says that “Canada geese, usually a ground-nesting species, regularly use train trestles and rooftops for their nest sites. They will also use apartment balconies. One pair, nesting in a large planter on the 17th floor of an apartment in Oakville, successfully raised young with a little help from the owners of the apartment. When the eggs hatched the young were brought down to the ground floor via the elevator.” Peck adds that ground nesters such as killdeers, ring-billed and herring gulls, and common nighthawks often nest on city rooftops to take advantage of the shelter from predators.
Glenn Coady, an avid birder and ongoing contributor to the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, recalls a day in July 2005 when two recently fledged northern saw-whet owls were found in the most unlikely place: a half-block west of Yonge and College streets in downtown Toronto. Coady discovered that this record is not without precedent. A recently fledged saw-whet owl was found on July 23, 1994, at the corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road.
The endangered peregrine falcon, a species all but wiped out in Ontario 30 years ago, is now breeding in Toronto (where 11 nest sites are active), Hamilton, London, Ottawa and many other cities. Peregrines nest on cliffs in the wild and have adapted to the built “cliff faces” of skyscrapers.
Langis Sirois, another contributor to the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, first learned of ravens nesting near the southwest entrance of the Corel Centre (now Scotia Bank Place) in Kanata near Ottawa in March 2005. Four young fledged from that nest, despite the traffic of hockey fans and concert goers. In 2006, Sirois noticed more nest building almost directly above the north entrance. But even when Sirois was watching the birds through his telescope, he felt the ravens were also watching him. “I had the feeling that if you go on with your own business, not paying attention to the nest and birds, the ravens feel secure; but if you look at the nest, they feel danger.” After all, ravens have many reasons not to trust us.
A frequent contributor to ON Nature, Ted Cheskey is manager of the Canadian Nature Network for Nature Canada.