Disoriented by glare and reflective surfaces, millions of birds crash into office buildings every year. Now, conservationists and city planners are teaming up to create a safer urban environment for avian travellers.

By Brian Banks

Evening comes, the sun sets and a brown-and-white wood thrush rises from a clump of trees beside a farmer’s field in upper New York State. As it climbs, it joins a gathering storm of migratory songbirds moving across the region. This nightly event in a three-month spring procession includes tens of thousands of birds, each making the flight across Lake Ontario en route to summer breeding grounds farther north.

The wood thrush, which weighs about as much as a golf ball, has already been travelling for about two weeks. It left its wintering grounds in Honduras and flew across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi Valley before making this pit stop in New York State. Two nights later it will reach its nesting area in central Ontario.

Clouds cover the lake, obscuring the stars by which the thrush usually navigates. After a few hours, the bird is heading toward the misty glow of the Toronto skyline. City lights become a powerful distraction. The thrush grows disoriented and smashes into the window of an office tower. The bird’s 3,000-kilometre journey, the same that innumerable generations before it have flown, has come to an abrupt and violent end.

Welcome to an urgent new battlefront in bird conservation: the city. Urban areas are filled with obstacles and threats to migratory birds, and, as such areas grow up, out and ever denser, so do the problems they cause. The dead wood thrush is one of an estimated one to 10 million birds killed in Toronto every year due to collisions with buildings and other structures. According to one expert, an average of 10 birds a year hit each Toronto building.

Collisions with buildings are only part of the issue. Destruction of natural habitat and the loss of food and shelter that urban expansion causes may be taking an even bigger toll, according to Bridget Stutchbury, a biologist at York University who studies migratory songbirds. The eastern half of North America is an “urban obstacle course,” she says, with fewer and fewer places where birds can refuel quickly enough to get to their summer grounds in time to reproduce. Add rapid habitat loss in the birds’ wintering grounds, and it’s not surprising that migratory bird populations are “crashing,” says Stutchbury.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is fresh optimism among bird conservationists about reducing the urban toll. In January, Toronto became the first major city in North America to require most new buildings to meet “bird-friendly” construction standards. And two months earlier, more than 100 bird experts gathered in the city for its first-ever international Symposium on Bird Conservation in Urban Areas. “We suddenly find ourselves leaders in this area,” says Kelly Snow, the planner who coordinates Toronto’s bird-friendly initiatives. “It’s an interesting and exciting step.”

Toronto may be garnering attention and credit for taking up the cause of migratory birds, but a small, mostly volunteer-run organization – Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) – got things rolling.

Michael Mesure founded FLAP in 1993. A former artist and gallery operator, the bird enthusiast started by simply picking up dead and injured birds around downtown buildings. Within a few years, he made bird rehabilitation and conservation in cities his life’s work, aiming, according to FLAP’s website, to create “a 24-hour, collision-free urban environment for migratory birds.” Similar organizations or programs now exist in Montreal, Halifax and several U.S. cities. Two of them – Project Safe Flight in New York and the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors – got start-up help from FLAP. The group has also been working with communities around Toronto, including in Markham and Mississauga.

FLAP volunteers patrol the bases of downtown and suburban office buildings throughout the day, looking for fallen birds. (Although lights at night attract birds, more collisions actually occur in the daytime, when birds are fooled by deceptive reflections in the glass.) Volunteers take any injured birds to the Toronto Wildlife Centre for care and rehabilitation. About 40 percent of the birds the volunteers find alive survive, says Susan Krajnc, FLAP’s program assistant and volunteer coordinator.

Of course, preventing the injuries and deaths by reducing collisions is the ultimate goal. To that end, Mesure has been lobbying municipal officials and encouraging building owners to make their structures safer for birds. Initially, this meant turning out the lights at night. Then FLAP increased its emphasis on averting daytime collisions through the use of visible window treatments, shading and screening, as well as grills, artwork, awnings, overhangs or even angled walls and glass to minimize reflection. The city became an active participant in the cause, and now most new buildings must incorporate such features up to a height of 12 metres above ground.

Over the last decade, more than 100 buildings in Toronto have adopted FLAP’s recommendations. Now, FLAP expects this number to grow as the city takes on a bigger role educating builders and property owners. FLAP plans to spend more time working in other cities as well as the Great Lakes. “It’s a huge flyway area for so many birds,” says Krajnc.

Few people can appreciate Krajnc’s point more than Stutchbury. In 2007, the York University professor headed a research team that attached tiny geolocators to the backs of wood thrushes and other songbirds to track their movement and location during migration – the first time the technology was used on such tiny fliers. Birds were caught on their summer grounds, fitted with the “backpacks,” released and then netted again the following spring when they returned to Canada. The researchers then downloaded and plotted the data.

“Each one of these tracks is an individual bird,” explains Stutchbury, pointing at a computer screen in her office. On the monitor is a map of North and Central America with several sets of lines, each representing the outbound and inbound journeys of a bird between the breeding area in northern Pennsylvania (the focus of Stutchbury’s study) and its winter range in Central America. The data also tell her how far they flew each day and in what direction. “We’ve never been able to capture this before,” she says.