Bird deaths in the millions lead to government, industry action

Bird advocates say the federal government’s order to protect a rare prairie bird is another example of government and industry taking significant steps to protect these winged creatures from man-made threats.

Environment Canada issues first emergency order to protect endangered bird

Emergency order to protect sage grouse

10 years ago
Duration 2:40
Environment Canada will issue an emergency order to protect the endangered sage grouse in Alberta and Saskatchewan

Bird advocates say the federal environment minister’s order to protect a rare prairie bird is another example of the significant steps government and industry are taking to protect winged creatures from man-made threats.

“Sector by sector, there is a growing awareness of ways to mitigate bird deaths,” says Alexander MacDonald, manager of protected areas for the advocacy group Nature Canada.

MacDonald says hundreds of millions of birds die every year in Canada due to man-made hazards, from building collisions to water pollution to habitat degradation.

While it is impossible to prevent all deaths, he says governments and industry are becoming more serious about protecting bird populations.

One of the most important developments, he says, came earlier this week, when Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced that her department will be issuing an emergency order to protect the greater sage grouse. The department says this is the first time it has implemented such an order.

According to Environment Canada, the population of this grouse subspecies has dropped 98 per cent since 1988, to the point where fewer than 150 of the birds remain. The decline has been attributed to habitat degradation caused by industry, mainly the oil and gas industry.

Bird advocates say the federal government’s order to protect the greater sage grouse is another example of government and industry taking significant steps to protect these winged creatures from manmade threats.

The protection order, which will be issued in the next few months, seeks to protect the sage grouse’s habitat on provincial and Crown lands in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“It appears to be a very positive step,” says MacDonald. “It’s certainly a precedent-setting move.”

Tall, glass-heavy buildings the biggest threat

The single biggest man-made threat to birds are the glass-encased skyscrapers and other buildings that cover the urban landscape, says Ryan Norris, a professor in the department of integrative biology at the University of Guelph.

The problem with glass is that it reflects an image of the surroundings, which in daylight can confuse birds into thinking that a closed window is actually a clear passage.

The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), a Toronto-based bird conservation initiative, estimates one million birds die every year as a result of building collisions in Toronto.

The reason Toronto has such a big problem is a combination of having so many tall structures and the fact that the city is located in the middle of “one of the busiest migratory corridors on the planet,” says FLAP’s executive director, Michael Mesure.

To address the problem, FLAP has partnered with the City of Toronto in crafting bird-friendly development guidelines. Mesure, who co-founded FLAP in 1993, has also consulted with other municipalities across the country to reduce building collisions.

Mesure says he isn’t advocating for fewer windows, merely that the windows contain markings of some sort.

The objective, he says, “is not the birds don’t see the reflection anymore, but that they see that there’s something between them and that illusion of reflection.”

While they were initially resistant, Mesure says that developers, architects and engineers are increasingly seeing the wisdom of modifying window designs.

Mesure says FLAP has “really built some momentum, which was desperately needed, to emphasize how big a problem it was, and still is.”

Dangerous light

While window reflections pose a threat to birds during the daytime, at night, the biggest hazard is artificial light, says Mesure.

Birds typically navigate by the light of the moon and stars, but if they find themselves in an artificially lit environment, they may get confused and often have difficulty leaving it, causing them to have collisions.

In 2006, FLAG and the City of Toronto launched Lights Out Toronto!, a public awareness campaign aimed at encouraging homes and business to turn out unnecessary lights.

7,500 migrating songbirds were killed by the flare at Saint John's Canaport LNG terminal. (CBC)

Mesure says it was their innate attraction to light that likely sent 7,500 songbirds to their deaths in a gas flare at the Canaport LNG plant in Saint John, N.B. last week.

The incident was no doubt tragic, says the University of Guelph’s Norris, but he believes it was “an isolated incident.”

Toxic ponds

A bigger concern, he says, are migratory birds that land in toxic tailings ponds in Alberta’s oilsands, thinking they are natural water bodies.

In 2010, oilsands operator Syncrude Canada was ordered to pay a $3-million penalty for the deaths of 1,600 ducks in one of its tailings ponds in April 2008.

About 1,600 ducks died after landing on a Syncrude oilsands tailings pond in Alberta on April 28, 2008. (Government of Alberta)

Syncrude and Suncor were exonerated of blame for a subsequent incident in October 2010, when more than 500 ducks died or had to be euthanized after landing in tailings ponds.

A report written by Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biologist at the University of Alberta, suggested that the latter incident was partially influenced by bad weather and the positioning of deterrents and artificial lights.

The Alberta government said oilsands companies are now working with the University of Alberta to explore new bird deterrence methods.

MacDonald points out that bird conservation efforts have been in effect since the early 1900s, but back then, the main human threat was hunting.

As a result of industrial progress, the threats have multiplied, which means conservation needs to be a more broad-based effort.

“Nowadays we’re looking at populations that are really in trouble for a number of reasons,” says MacDonald.

“It’s definitely not just one jurisdiction that has the ability to work with industry and the public to mitigate those factors.”