Collision course: Making Canada’s cities more bird-friendly

How one grassroots organization in Toronto makes our glass landscapes less deadly for birds.

Plant treats a warbler inside her vehicle.
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A dead black-throated blue warbler is tagged at the Fatal Light Awareness Program Canada office in Toronto.
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THUD. The disconcerting sound of a bird flying full speed into a window is difficult to forget. Even more upsetting are the enormous consequences of these collisions — tens of millions of lifeless avian bodies fall to the sidewalks in Canada each year, according to the Avian Conservation and Ecology journal. One Toronto organization is making a difference in its own backyard — and beyond.

Tucked away in a small basement office near the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto is Fatal Light Awareness Program Canada, more suitably known by the acronym FLAP. Since 1993, the charity has focused on making our human-made glass landscapes less deadly for birds by championing preventative measures (like sticking vinyl film dots on windows to increase their visibility to birds), petitioning for changes to Canada’s building standards and mobilizing an extensive grassroots effort to document and save birds when collisions happen.

Early one morning in late September, Paloma Plant, FLAP Canada’s co-founder, walks Toronto’s downtown core, her sights aimed at the pavement where the dangers of the city’s glass skyscrapers to birds are most evident. Patrols happen daily at this time of year, the start of fall migration for many bird species. “The last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October are typically the busiest … because you’ve got the tail end of the warbler [migration]. You’re starting to see the sparrows, the thrushes,” she says. “Thanksgiving weekend is always particularly brutal for us.”

Paloma Plant, FLAP Canada’s co-founder, attends to an injured blue jay.
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Plant patrolling for dead and injured birds.
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This week, Plant has come across 38 birds, from 18 different species, mostly dead, including a pair of severed bird heads — likely, says Plant, the result of a peregrine falcon attack. She also responds to a call from a local business owner who has found an injured blue jay. Her patrols are aided by a vast group of passionate volunteers — 60 people were making the rounds this week — who travel on foot throughout the Greater Toronto Area, searching for dead or injured birds that have collided with buildings. Strikes are documented and entered into FLAP’s Global Bird Collision Mapper, a tracker showing bird collisions with buildings around the world. Since patrols started almost three decades ago, FLAP Canada’s volunteers have recovered nearly 100,000 birds, injured and dead, in the GTA alone. The tally is 173 species, including 24 species at risk.

Dead birds are documented and brought back to the FLAP Canada office, where they’re catalogued and temporarily stored in a freezer. These birds are destined for the ornithology department at the Royal Ontario Museum to be used for study and to be put on display. The freezer, while small, is practically overflowing, crammed to the very top with small birds — and it’s emptied about six times during each migration season.

Live birds are also brought back to the office. They’re usually stunned, making them more vulnerable to predators or even the unfortunate crush of a human foot if unnoticed.

Paloma Plant administers arnica to an injured warbler at the FLAP Canada office; here, she assesses injured birds’ health, including eye movement and wing mobility.
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Plant working at the FLAP Canada office.
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But luckily for one warbler this week, Plant finds it first. She goes to work quickly, dropping arnica into its beak, for pain relief and inflammation. She then assesses the injury further, examining its wing mobility and eye movement. If more care is needed, the bird will be taken to the Toronto Wildlife Centre.

“What bothers me the most is that [bird collisions] are preventable,” she says. “We’ve tried to focus not just on the individual, but on the species as a whole. We are making a difference to the one bird we find alive today, but by getting the statutes and mandates in place for future generations, we’re also helping birds in the future.”

Deceased birds are readied for the freezer, where they’ll be stored until they are donated to the Royal Ontario Museum.
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FLAP Canada has managed to tip the policy scales more in favour of the birds. Shortly after its founding, the organization started its Lights Out program to limit the light pollution that confuses migrating birds. The program has led to hundreds of Lights Out initiatives across North America. It also pushed the creation of the Bird-Friendly Development Guidelines adopted by the City of Toronto in 2007, a world first. Other Canadian cities have since followed suit, adopting their own guidelines. And there is now a motion before the Ontario Legislature to add the Canadian Standards Association Bird Friendly Building Design Standard into the Ontario Building Code.

Seeing the sharp decline in bird strikes at buildings that adopt bird-friendly design, like effective visual markers, keeps Plant going. “We’ve seen the changes in the design of buildings. We’ve seen the changes in the standards. And we’ve seen how they’ve been implemented — not always in the best possible way, but our influence is there,” she says.

Back at FLAP Canada’s tiny office, Plant is hunched over, caring for the injured warbler in the hopes that it will fly again. Only a few feet away stands a freezer full of reminders of the work that still needs to be done.

Windows at 50 Sussex Drive, headquarters of Canadian Geographic and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, with bird-friendly designs printed onto them. (Photo: Javier Frutos/Can Geo)
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Window Pain

Rivers are highways for migrating birds. And the Ottawa River that flows alongside its eponymous city is a migration corridor for nearly 150 species. During the spring and fall migrations, thousands of geese and ducks, shorebirds and loons use the Ottawa River as their wayfinder. And the forests adjacent to the river teem with migrating landbirds like swallows, warblers and sparrows. It’s fitting, then, that Canada’s Centre for Geography and Exploration at 50 Sussex Drive, perched at the swirling confluence of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, will incorporate bird-friendly design to protect these birds on the move.

The five-storey headquarters of Canadian Geographic and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society is primarily glass, which makes for spectacular views over the river, but poses two key dangers for migrating birds: transparency (birds think they can fly through it), and reflectiveness (birds see their own habitat reflected back at them). So, in 2020, the National Capital Commission, which owns the property, teamed up with the Society for a project at 50 Sussex to retrofit the building according to its Bird-Safe Design Guidelines. (The guidelines were developed by the NCC in partnership with FLAP and Safe Wings Ottawa.)

”For 50 Sussex, it is [window] decals, because the main risk to birds is the windows,” says Sophie Robichaud, NCC’s sustainable development programs officer. Other NCC-owned buildings might need to be retrofitted in different ways, she explains, including measures such as capping large vent shafts.

The decals, created by Toronto-based manufacturer Feather Friendly, were applied to the exterior of the windows in 50 Sussex’s upper gallery (right), and follow criteria — pattern density, size and contrast — deemed most effective at preventing collisions from all sizes of birds. This spring, following a hiatus due to the pandemic, decals will be added to all the windows on the main gallery and two lower levels of office space.

The NCC has assessed almost 200 of its buildings and will continue to retrofit high priority buildings this summer and fall.

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This story is from the May/June 2022 Issue

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