Letter to the Editor: Death by a Thousand Collisions

In the October issue, Canadian Architect published the winners of the RAIC’s annual awards, including Emerging Architectural Practice winner UUfie. While this young firm’s accomplishments are admirable, their Lake Cottage caught my eye for another reason: it looks like a death trap for birds. The cottage’s outdoor porch features a mirrored ceiling and walls that reflect the surrounding forest. Unfortunately, for birds, reflective surfaces (and even plain glass) can cause sudden death.

Birds do not understand the concept of glass. They see landscape reflected in windows and mirrored building exteriors, and mistake them for safe passage. Though millions of birds collide with buildings in urban areas each year in Canada, most collisions are with houses. Many of these collisions occur on windows on homes in wooded areas and in locations near bodies of water, where migrating birds travel.

The journal Science recently reported that nearly 30 percent of all birds (that is, 3 billion birds) have disappeared since the 1970s. This loss includes some birds we take for granted—backyard regulars like blue jays—as well as migrating songbirds such as warblers, kinglets, and ovenbirds. Loss of habitat and dramatic changes in weather contribute to declining populations, but losses caused by the built environment are startlingly high, and they are not necessary. Across North America, the number of migrating birds killed annually in collisions with buildings is estimated to be 699 million.

Bird behaviour is dictated by instincts deep in avian DNA. They are unable to adapt rapidly to changes in migratory routes. Reflective surfaces and lighting at night on migratory routes lead to dramatic bird kills. In Toronto and New York, cities full of gleaming office towers, migratory birds can literally rain down on sidewalks, where volunteers endeavour to retrieve and save those still living.

The stunning breadth of collisions with buildings in Toronto is exhibited each year at the Royal Ontario Museum in a disheartening display. Volunteers from Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), an organization that has been studying migratory birds in built environments for over 25 years, collect injured and deceased migratory birds over the year. An annual exhibit displays the birds’ bodies.

With help from FLAP and two decades of effort, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) recently produced a voluntary Bird-Friendly Design Standard. The Standard covers bird-friendly building design in both new construction and existing buildings, along with design requirements for glazing, building-integrated structures and overall building and site design. It should be understood that it is not necessary to give up attractive design while considering birds. Appropriately fritted glass, for example, makes glass visible to birds. Sometimes a simple adjustment of an angle or an overhang makes all the difference. 

The City of Toronto provided Bird-Friendly Guidelines as far back as 2007, but public comprehension and buy-in of new information takes time. Since then, scientists and volunteers have been producing compelling data to support progress in our understanding of architecture’s impact on our feathered friends. With the new CSA Standard, we are one step closer to making bird-friendly design part of sustainable building construction. As in the case of recycling, water management and so many other issues, architects should consider bird-friendly design to be part of sustainable building practice, and they should support a legal framework to make it mandatory. 

-Cynthia Cohlmeyer, Landscape Architect, FCSLA