Wednesday, March 10, 2010

High Rises and Bird Crashes

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a . . . WATCH OUT FOR THA . . .

As our cities grow larger and land is gobbled up so fast the only way to build is up, office towers, condos and apartment complexes are getting higher every year.

Not a problem, thanks to those magic metal boxes whipping us up and down these buildings. Problem is, migratory birds don’t take elevators – and because their visual acuity differs from how our human eyes work, when we humans design these buildings, often we just don’t take their point of view.

Today, two environmental groups launched legal action against a property management firm in Canada’s largest city claiming the buildings in the lawsuit are migratory bird killing complexes.

Ontario Nature and Ecojustice initiated legal proceedings against Menkes, claiming that over 800 birds have died after flying into three of its Menkes’ office towers. The environmental groups have filed the lawsuit under the Environmental Protection Act and the OSCPA Cruelty to Animals Act, claiming the buildings at 100, 200 and 300 Consilium Place have the most reflective glass windows in the entire city, leading to the high numbers of bird deaths.

At first thought, this story might appear to be just a media stunt, to coincide with this month’s Earth Hour event. Organized by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Earth Hour is an annual event where businesses and residents around the world are encouraged to turn off all their lights for one entire hour, to show their support for climate change. In the past, cities in the United States, Canada, Australia and others have all participated.

In Toronto last year, all the skyscrapers and even the world famous CN Tower turned off all but their hallway and airplane warning lights, creating an eerie dark silence rarely seen in the city.

This may be a media stunt leading up to Earth Hour – which takes place in Toronto on March 27 – but birds do die from crashing into buildings.

Migratory birds – birds which migrate through cities en route to their mating sites in the spring, winter homes in the fall – aren’t as adaptable to city living as local birds which call our cities home. Birds that don’t migrate, but live in our cities year-round seem to have grown accustom to our high rise buildings of concrete, glass and steel.

Migratory birds on the other hand, get easily confused by the lights, shiny and reflective surfaces, and will often crash into these buildings mistaking a reflection of a tree or a cloud in one of these buildings as the real thing, and heading straight for it.

Clear glass presents the greatest risk to birds, as birds can’t perceive it until they are already too close to slow down or get out of its way.

The City of Toronto does have a program in place to encourage property managers, residents and business owners living and working in high rises to be bird friendly – called Light’s Out Toronto.

Whether or not the property management firm named in the lawsuit is following the Light’s Out Toronto guidelines for making new and existing buildings more bird friendly remains to be seen – if the matter makes it to the courts this will be one of the issues raised.

There are a number of things in the city’s guidelines which can be done to new and existing buildings to make them more bird friendly – such as glass treatments to reduce reflections, night lighting schemes, and other building management and operations practices.

The real issue here – as with anything related to our environment – is learning to live with nature, rather than isolated from it.

As our cities continue to expand skywards, buildings have to be designed to be bird friendly – using less reflective glass, having distinguishable patterns throughout the exterior of the building so birds see it as a solid object, and using less lights at night to avoid confusing birds are just some of the answers.

Although the environmental groups initiating a law suit against a property management firm raises awareness of these issues, that’s about all it does.

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