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In birds vs. buildings, feathered friends gain ground

Globe and Mail


May 17, 2010

By Chris Atchison

With building owners increasingly being held to account, experts urge dealing with issue at blueprint stage.

On any given day in spring or fall, Michael Mesure can be found trolling the perimeters of Toronto office buildings in search of birds.

But rather than spotting them in flight, he's busy recovering carcasses.

What drives him to carry out such a macabre task? Typically, windows that reflect a bird's natural habitat, such as trees or the daytime sky, or brightly lit offices that attract feathered flyers at night. In both cases, birds make the fatal mistake of hurtling into the hard surfaces, usually resulting in their deaths. It's a problem Mr. Mesure, the executive director of the Toronto-based Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), an advocacy group dedicated to minimizing preventable avian deaths, has spent the past 20 years working with architects, building managers and owners to overcome.

Birds, particularly species that migrate in spring and fall, tend to become disoriented around glass buildings. If the surface is reflective, they think they're flying through the open sky before meeting a beak-crunching fate. Others nest in trees near commercial or residential buildings. When they wake and begin the search for food, the birds fly to the next tree, which is often a reflection of the one they just left.

A handful of structures with particularly reflective facades in the Toronto area experience bird collisions of about 500 to 2,000 each per year, according to FLAP, while the majority of Toronto's estimated 940,000 structures post annual collision rates of between one and 10 strikes. "Our record is more than 500 birds in a six-hour period at one Toronto facility," he says. "It was hailing birds that day."

Building owners are being held to account for bird deaths on their properties.

In a novel move this spring, environmental groups Ontario Nature and Ecojustice initiated a private legal action under the Ontario Environmental Protection Act and the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act against Menkes Developments Ltd., a Toronto-based commercial building and management firm. The legal tactic has not been used before in Ontario, Ecojustice lawyer Albert Koehl says.

At issue is bird strikes at Consilium Place, a Scarborough office complex that is clad completely in mirrored glass. FLAP estimates more than 7,000 dead birds have been recovered there since 2000.

But as awareness builds, fewer birds are dying.

Lights Out Toronto, a project encouraging building tenants to switch off their office lights to avoid attracting migratory birds, has reduced the number of high-rise bird strikes while offering another green benefit - decreased power usage.

Several commercial landlords in the city participate in the program, and the Toronto-based Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada has incorporated bird-friendly light pollution control requirements in its BOMA Best environmental certification.

Some North American municipalities have even begun requiring bird-friendly building designs.

The City of Toronto's Green Standard, for example, now requires builders to mute external reflections or apply density patterns to windows - typically horizontal lines spaced no more than 10 to 28 centimetres apart - for the first 10 to 12 metres above grade level, where 90 per cent of bird collisions occur.

The incoming birds see the window patterns, realize they're flying toward a solid structure and adjust their flight path. Chicago and other cities have introduced similar guidelines.

In one example, the Town of Markham, Ont., applied a pattern to the windows of one of its collision-prone municipal buildings last year and hasn't reported a bird strike since - save for one panel that had yet to be treated. In this case, the $50,000 retrofit on roughly 30,000 to 35,000 square feet of glass even offered some aesthetic benefits.

"When we installed the film, our staff thought it was there to make the building look nicer," says Victoria McGrath, director of Markham's sustainability office.

For its part, Menkes says it has employed numerous bird strike-prevention measures at the Consilium property since late 2006, when the company bought the complex.

Sonya Buikema, Menkes's vice-president of commercial property management, says Consilium's non-essential lighting is turned off and office blinds are drawn at dusk. Even temporary measures such as netting have been used. Patrols around the property throughout the day retrieve dead or injured birds.

While Ms. Buikema can't quantify Menkes's financial investment to limit bird strikes, she says it has been "substantial." The company is considering additional measures such as applying window patterns, she says, but concedes that a sure-fire solution to the problem remains elusive.

"We continue to investigate all options and we're working with different groups to find out what the best ones are," she explains. "This isn't our core business, so it takes time."

Mr. Mesure says there's still plenty of work to do.

Most bird strikes occur between the first and fourth floors, and they will continue unless building owners and managers are required to retrofit their structures with window films or other protective elements such as screens, he says.

Some property managers and owners are reluctant to take action, however. They may be eager to turn lights off, he says, but more extensive measures are often met with derision.

Larger commercial property owners have been more willing to entertain bird-conservation strategies to buttress their eco-friendly images, says Paul Adam, president of the Toronto-based bird control consultancy Bird Strike. Still, he doesn't see costly retrofits such as window patterns as a viable option.

The key is to incorporate bird-friendly features in the design phase, says Sharon Hollingsworth, an interior designer with Vancouver-based green-design firm Bunting Coady Architects.

Adding elements such as non-reflective or patterned windows, diffusers to minimize light pollution and automatic systems to turn off lights in empty rooms often result in little extra cost to the client and may even save money later on energy bills, she says.

Other firms are offering increasingly creative options.

Philadelphia-based architects Kieran Timberlake Associates LLP were faced with a challenge when a client complained of birds flying out of an adjacent tree and into his building. The client didn't want to remove the foliage, so Roderick Bates, the firm's senior environmental researcher, advised spraying the tree with a temporary, environmentally friendly chemical deterrent.

The plan worked and bird deaths dropped dramatically.

"For us, that was a good retrofit solution because it was low cost and easy to do," Mr. Bates says. "The interventions that you have to apply aren't always going to be in the realm of architecture."

Still, Mr. Bates prefers to address potential problems at the blueprint stage.

Such was the case when the firm began designing the new U.S. embassy in London. The enviro-friendly glass building lies in the flight path of migratory birds, so architects included wing-like scrims on the building's exterior that not only make the transparent glass facade visible to birds, but also shade the interior. The scrims even house photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into usable power.

"We found that cognizance of the bird strike issue from the outset really added no costs to that project whatsoever. It was just rolled into other strategies," Mr. Bates says.

While new technology could mean that Mr. Mesure's days of patrolling for dead birds are numbered, he says further progress largely depends on co-operation between the public and private sector.

Cities need to move toward stricter mandatory measures, and the window manufacturing world needs to get involved and produce glass with bird-friendly patterns so they can give developers options.

"Making it mandatory for any structure that requires glass to follow these bird-friendly standards is important."

--The majority of bird-strike deaths occur during migratory periods in the spring, from mid-March to the beginning of June, and autumn, from mid-August until the end of October, according to Michael Mesure, executive director of the Fatal Light Awareness Program.

--To date, FLAP has recovered some 162 species from buildings in the Toronto area. Some of the most common are the white-throated sparrow, the golden-crowned kinglet, the magnolia warbler, the American woodcock, the hermit thrush and the Canada warbler.

--Additional steps to reduce bird strikes include closing office blinds at night, using frosted or stained glass windows and removing inside vegetation (such as trees in enclosed atriums) to prevent birds from mistaking them as potential landing points.

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