National Gallery glass a clear and present danger, bird group warns

The National Gallery of Canada's dramatic glass facade may make for an eye-catching Ottawa landmark, but it also kills dozens of birds each year, according to a group trying to reduce the number of avian collisions in the capital.

Dozens of birds die each year after smashing into gallery's windows, Safe Wings Ottawa says

A three-story glass walkway at the National Gallery of Canada's northern end is one of the deadliest spots for birds, according to the group Safe Wings Ottawa. (Safe Wings Ottawa)

The National Gallery of Canada's dramatic glass facade may make for an eye-catching Ottawa landmark, but it also kills dozens of birds each year, according to a group trying to reduce the number of avian collisions in the capital.

Safe Wings Ottawa is calling on the gallery to take measures to prevent birds from smashing into its windows. The group estimates 77 birds died after flying into the gallery's glass in 2016, and another 52 lost their lives last year.

Volunteers have only counted five dead birds so far this year, they say because many of the gallery's windows are currently concealed by scaffolding associated with a window replacement project.

Anouk Hoedeman, the volunteer co-ordinator of Safe Wings Ottawa, believes once the scaffolding is removed, the number of bird collisions will rise again.

Hoedeman scans the perimeter of the gallery twice a day — three times a day during spring and fall migrations — to check for fallen birds.

Dozens of birds die each year after flying into the National Gallery of Canada's broad windows, according to the group Safe Wings Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Deadly walkway

Recently she found a dead wood thrush, a bird on both the federal and provincial lists of at-risk species.

She said the worst spot is the three-storey glass walkway that connects the gallery to staff offices near Nepean Point.

"It's completely clear of trees on either side, and it's near the river and it acts as a funnel for birds flying through toward the river, " Hoedeman said. "An awful lot of them hit the glass and die."

Hoedeman believes the birds she and the rest of her group collect represent only a small number of those that actually strike the glass, because many are then scooped up by scavengers such as crows, gulls and even cats. Sometimes gallery staff pick up the stunned birds before Safe Wings can get to them, Hoedeman said.

A black-capped chickadee, a dark-eyed junco, a white-throated sparrow and a hermit thrush were among the birds found dead outside the National Gallery of Canada after crashing into the building's glass exterior. (Safe Wings Ottawa)

Little action

Hoedeman said she's spoken repeatedly with the gallery, and said management is "well aware of the problem."

She said so far, there's been little action.

"Nothing ever happens, and I've gotten frustrated with that."

There are two hawk silhouettes on the walkway glass, but Hoedeman said the decals have been ineffective. Instead, the gallery could apply vinyl dots that form a dense pattern on the glass, she said, or wrap technology similar to what's used on some bus advertising.

"You can see right through that material, but from the outside it looks opaque," said Hoedeman. "It wouldn't ruin the view or block the light. It works really well."

Anouk Hoedeman with Safe Wings Ottawa says the National Gallery could add a mural or a pattern of dots to the glass so birds will see it as an obstacle rather than something they can fly through. 0:39

Gallery pondering solutions

No one from the National Gallery was available for an interview with CBC, but in an emailed statement the gallery said it's working on the issue.

"The gallery is looking at potential solutions that could be implemented within its budget," it said.

While she admits some mitigation measures are expensive, Hoedeman said it's worth the cost.

'You have to balance the cost with the value of our wildlife, and the birds are declining quite rapidly," she said.

Safe Wings Ottawa estimates some 250,000 birds died last year by striking windows in the city.

A Northern waterthrush found dead outside the National Gallery of Canada last week. (Safe Wings Ottawa)