Last One Out, Please Turn Off The Lights

By Mike Jones – Special to SUNonline/Orillia

World Migratory Bird Day is celebrated in Canada every second Saturday of May – 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 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 they are just passing through or settling 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 preventable source of bird deaths. In Toronto, many buildings on the migration route – especially high-rises 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 millennia, 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 it’s no wonder birds are confused and their navigation systems compromised. 

An organisation called Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) has been working for 30 years with some success to get lights turned off during migration season. Since most of these buildings are unoccupied at night, other than for cleaning staff – why are the lights on anyway?

FLAP also does ground-level rescue work during migratory periods. 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 mission is carried out in the dark hours, just before dawn, pre-empting predators like ring-billed gulls from swooping down, eating the dead and killing the injured and stunned birds. Despite 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 how you can make your house more bird-safe visit their website, they’ll be delighted to hear from you.

Some birds are accorded a degree of protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act 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 a $100 billion judgement against BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The company pleaded guilty to criminal charges which included violating the MBTA. The spill killed an estimated million birds and might well provide a 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.

The Canadian Standards Association is currently developing a bird-friendly standard which, if 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 as soon as possible. Meanwhile, right here at home the City of Orillia might consider reviewing and adapting these standards for all new City-owned buildings.  

In Orillia, located on a major migratory flight path, 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, because of rising downtown land costs, increasing population and development pressures. Let’s embed and advocate best practices nonetheless so 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.  

(Images and Photos Supplied)


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