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Ontario all squawk, no action on protecting migrating birds: Opinion

By Anne Bell, Michael Mesure and John Swaigen,
Toronto Star,
March 22 2017

The first wave of migratory birds is back in Ontario. For the next three months, thousands will be arriving every day, some from as far away as Chile and Argentina. These migrants face many perils on their long and arduous journeys but there is one preventable danger that humans have created right here in our cities.

Every year an estimated one million birds die from internal bleeding after colliding with windows in Toronto. These birds are fatally attracted to the reflected images in windows of trees, vegetation or sky – which they perceive to be safe havens. The annual death toll across Canada is an estimated 25 million birds.

These deaths are completely unnecessary.

Environmental and community groups had hoped the Government of Ontario would act to address this tragedy after a 2013 court ruling of the Ontario Court of Justice. In that ruling, the court found that light reflected from building windows “undoubtedly contributes to many thousands of otherwise avoidable bird deaths every year” and that such reflected light is a “contaminant” under Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act.

Despite this finding, the government failed to enact regulatory measures to deal with reflected light. The government’s official, and surprisingly flippant, response was that it was “satisfied that not proceeding with compliance activities for the emission of reflected light is appropriate.” In short, the government was prepared to do nothing.

Our hopes were raised again in 2015 when the issue was highlighted in the annual report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, who chastised the government for ignoring its responsibility to regulate reflected light. The report received widespread attention.

Once the issue was in the public eye, the response from Glen Murray, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, was quick. He admitted he hadn’t been paying much attention to bird deaths until the commissioner shined a light on the topic. He agreed with the commissioner’s findings and said he didn’t think his own government’s response was adequate. He promised to look at a more complete response to the issue.

However, since that promise was made nearly a year ago, the ministry has done nothing to protect the birds. Ministry staff claim it is not practical to develop a regulation – a strange statement given that several jurisdictions including Cook County, Ill., San Francisco and the State of Minnesota have all passed laws or ordinances aimed at reducing bird kills from building collisions.

Meanwhile, millions of birds have needlessly died from window collisions in Ontario since 2015. Over the coming three months, tens of thousands more will join the ranks of the fallen, dead or badly injured in window collisions.

This is another example where government has been called out for failing to protect wildlife, issued some platitudes and promises and then waited for the issue to fade. In other words, another example of “all talk, no action.”

There is, however, a solution. The government needs to regulate light reflected from commercial and institutional buildings that is likely to cause harm to birds. There are remedies available – UV glass, opaque awnings, sunshades and various visual markers to alert birds to the presence of glass – that are proven to effectively address this hazard.

It is not that difficult, especially compared to the perilous journey each migratory bird undertakes every spring and fall as it flies thousands of kilometres to and from its nesting grounds here in Ontario. Birds need our help more than ever as other threats, ranging from climate change to habitat loss and predation by domestic cats, are decimating migratory bird populations across Canada.

As is often the case, the only thing missing is political will. Birds risk their lives twice a year flying between Canada and the tropics. But government officials don’t seem willing to lift a finger to pass a simple regulation to give the birds added protection.

In the meantime, this spring will see dozens of dedicated volunteers up before dawn patrolling the streets of Toronto to pick up dead and injured birds lying at the base of the city’s skyscrapers. This heartbreaking work, organized by the Fatal Light Awareness Program Canada, has been going on for a quarter century.

Do these volunteers need to deliver the birds’ lifeless bodies to the doorsteps of Queen’s Park before the government will finally act?

Dr. Anne Bell is the director of conservation and education for Ontario Nature. anneb@ontarionature.org. Michael Mesure is co-founder and executive director of Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) Canada. executivedirector@flap.org. John Swaigen is staff lawyer for Ecojustice.