World Migratory Bird Day is celebrated in Canada on the second Saturday of May – which is May 14th this year. In many ways, it is a joyful time of year, marking the end of cold weather and reuniting us with old feathered friends who have wintered in the south and often have travelled astonishingly far to return. Here in Orillia we are fortunate to be located on a significant migration route and we have already welcomed many of our fair-weather friends back, whether ‘just passing through’ or setting into their nests for the season ahead.
There is however, a darker side to migration; it is a perilous, stressful time for migrating birds and many do not make it. There are natural hazards such as storms, high winds and unseasonable cold snaps. And there are human hazards, such as hunters and building collisions. Around the world, many small birds we might never consider as food, are netted and eaten in the thousands. And we are all too familiar with the fall hunting season, focused on gamebirds and responsible for killing over five million birds each year in North America.
Building collisions kill between three hundred million up to a billion birds world-wide each year and it is a largely preventable source of bird deaths. For example, in Toronto, many buildings on the migration route – especially high-rises that remain lit at night – present a death trap to migrating birds. These buildings may represent progress to some, but certainly not to thousands of of birds, flying in the dark and navigating by the stars. For millenniums, before human ascendancy, the only light visible to birds enroute, might have been a Neolithic hunter-gatherer’s fire or the gleam of moonlight on a lake. Now, as so much of our planet is aglow with light pollution, no wonder birds are confused and their navigation systems compromised.
An organisation called Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) has been working for the past thirty years to get lights turned off during migration seasons, with some success. Since most of these buildings are unoccupied at night, other than for cleaning staff – why are the lights on anyways?
FLAP also does ground-level rescue work during migratory periods and in Toronto. A typical FLAP rescue operation entails patrolling downtown canyons, picking up scores of dead, injured or stunned migratory birds. FLAP tends to the injured if possible and provides a quiet place of recovery for the merely stunned. Their missions are carried out in the dark hours, just before dawn, pre-empting predators like Ring-Bill Gulls from swooping down to kill the injured and stunned birds and eat the dead. Despite occasional challenges from police and security services, FLAP’s work continues, as does their mission to ‘turn off the lights’ during migratory season. If you are interested in learning more about FLAP, the work they do and how you can make your house more ‘bird-safe’ – please go to ‘https://www.flap.org’. They’ll be delighted to hear from you.
Some birds are accorded a degree of protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) which makes it a crime to ‘pursue, hunt, take, capture or kill’ a migratory bird. The definition of a ‘migratory bird’ can be extended at times, to include an ‘incidental take’ – when birds are killed unintentionally (but avoidably) as a result of commercial or industrial activities. This was the case in the $100 Billion judgement against BP, who after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico pleaded guilty to criminal charges, which included violating the MBTA. That spill killed an estimated million birds and might well provide precedent for bringing similar charges against the owners/operators of high-rise commercial buildings who refuse to turn off or dim their lights during migration times. Food for thought…
The Canadian Standards Association recently developed a bird-friendly standard, which, if and when adopted into building codes, will greatly reduce bird collisions with buildings. Thus far, the Province of Ontario has not taken a position, however with an election around the corner, public pressure (a word from you) would be helpful in getting this standard embedded into the Ontario Building Code.
Orillia, which as mentioned earlier, is located on a major migratory flight path and we do not yet have enough tall buildings to make a huge difference to migratory bird deaths – but this could very well change in the future, due to rising downtown land costs, increasing population and development pressures. Let’s embed and advocate best practices nonetheless – so that when we say Orillia is a ‘bird friendly’ city … we are ensuring a safe passage for the millions of birds that fly through the night air above our homes each year.