Nowadays nature is threatened by all kinds of dangers which usually have one common denominator: they are caused by humans. Everyday human activity is affecting wildlife in many ways, such as habitat destruction, the use of pesticides, monoculture, genetically manipulated organisms and pollution, which is driving many species towards extinction.
For birds, habitat loss is the most important factor closely followed by threats posed by materials used to build in the construction industry. The trend among architects is to use plate glass in building, purely for aesthetic reasons. This is causing many birds to collide with glass windows, often with fatal consequences. The problem with glass is that it is invisible to birds. During daytime tinted or mirrored glass reflects the sky, trees and other surrounding vegetation, giving birds an illusion of save passage or habitat. With clear glass structures birds head straight for natural features which can be clearly seen through the glass or large plants placed near windows inside a building. Extensive night lighting of buildings can cause nocturnal birds or night-migrating birds to collide with glass windows, as light attracts nocturnal insects or is mistaken for navigational signs. Artificial lighting can be even more confusing to birds under certain prevailing weather conditions, such as rain, fog or low cloud.
In a study on the collision issue, spanning more than 30 years, a noted ornithologist estimated that on average every structure with glass windows has 1–10 bird strike fatalities a year. Converted to North America this amounts to between one hundred million and one billion birds killed by flying into buildings. A solution to the problems caused by these glass panes is not that difficult; turning off lights in tall buildings at night is one solution, as many of the (smaller) birds migrate at night. Removal of trees close to reflective windows is also an option. As the majority of bird collisions occur at levels below sixteen metres, another most effective solution is to apply visual markers, or, for more aesthetic reasons, a specialized film which can be applied to windows. Specialized collision prevention netting can also be used.
According to statistics of the non-profit group FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) there are over one million fatal bird collisions with glass windows each year in Toronto, which lies in the heart of one of the busiest migratory bird routes in North America. The City of Toronto’s 2005 Bird Friendly Development Guidelines specify that retrofitting windows with transparent films will solve much of the bird strike problems. The drawback with these guidelines is that they are not mandatory for owners of existing buildings. There is a high awareness among existing building owners of the hazards that windows pose for birds, but not much is done because solutions available to owners are either too costly to carry out or not particularly aesthetic. Although there is no intention of killing birds, there comes a point where building owners have to take responsibility. In a bid to force the issue two independent environmental organizations, Ecojustice and Ontario Nature, resorted to a lawsuit. The goal of the lawsuit is to send a message to owners of existing buildings that measures can be implemented to avoid killing birds.
In March 2011 private charges were filed under Section 14 of the Ontario Environmental Protection Act (EPA) and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act against Toronto-based Menkes Development and its sister companies, alleging that light from the highly reflective window surfaces of its Consilium Place office complex have caused the death or injury of birds, including species already in steep decline. Section 14 (1) EPA reads “Subject to subsection (2) but despite any other provision of this Act or the regulations, a person shall not discharge a contaminant or cause or permit the discharge of a contaminant into the natural environment, if the discharge causes or may cause an adverse effect. 2005, c. 12, s. 1 (5).” According to Section 1 (1) EPA “contaminant” means any solid, liquid, gas, odour, heat, sound, vibration, radiation or combination of any of them resulting directly or indirectly from human activities that causes or may cause an adverse effect.
FLAP statistics rank the Consilium Place as the most lethal building structures in Toronto for birds. Composed of three adjoining 17- and 19-storey office towers with glass panels that mirror the sky and surrounding trees, it is giving birds an illusion of save passage. Menkes had attempted to scare birds away by using holographic tape, but failed to do so, because birds are learning quickly that the tape does not pose a threat and fly over or underneath it. Retrofitting the three buildings appropriately will cost Menkes approximately CAN$30.000 for each building.
After several trial sessions between April 2011 and February 2012, a decision on the case is not expected until November 2012. The maximum fine under the EPA is CAN$6 million per day for a first offence. The charge under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act for causing distress to birds carries a maximum fine of CAN$60,000. If successful, it would not only encourage other building owners to take action in order to avoid being targeted, but it could also have a ripple effect, as this lawsuit, being the first of its kind in North America, is closely monitored internationally. It would also add another positive development for (migratory) birds consisting of the adoption of more standards to make the building environment safer. For example, the San Francisco Standards for Bird-Safe Buildings, adopted in July 2011, following the guidelines and standards of the Cities of Toronto, New York, and Chicago and the State of Minnesota.