'It was awful': Spring migration has begun and fatal bird strikes are on the rise

Bird strikes are a concern every year during spring migration. Some arrive early and forage on anything they can find, including fermented berries. Add in walls of glass and you have a deadly situation.

Fermented berries, window glass cost the lives of 18 Bohemian waxwings

Eighteen Bohemian Waxwing birds died in one day after colliding with glass surrounding a deck. (Submitted by Renate Traweger)

It's a day Renate Traweger will never forget. 

It was late March and Traweger was working her usual weekend shift at the Eden Care Communites on Broadway Avenue in Regina. She was with some residents in one of the common rooms, which has large windows facing a couple of trees and a school yard.

Renate Traweger found the dead Bohemian waxwings outside of her workplace. (Fiona Odlum/CBC)

When Traweger, an avid bird watcher, looked out the window she thought she saw an injured bird lying in the late spring snow. She immediately threw on her coat and was out the door.

When she got closer she realized very quickly she was looking at a mound of dead birds — 18 to be exact.

Traweger was horrified: "There was some that were still alive in the bush, just kind of watching over. And it was just — it was so hard for me to look at. They had all perished."

The birds had arrived a couple days earlier during their spring migration from Texas, and were having a pit stop in Regina before heading to their usual summer spot in Prince Albert.

Bohemian waxwings munch on fermented crabapples. (Pam Lusk)

They had been resting in the trees near the building, and feeding on the berries left on the tree from last year. The trees are also close to a deck attached to the care home and it has glass partitions. The now fermented berries combined with the glass proved to be a recipe for disaster for the tipsy little birds.

"Lots of them had the the berries in their mouths, so you could tell they were eating the berries in mid-flight" Traweger said.

She immediately called Salthaven West, a wildlife rehabilitation clinic in Regina, and asked them what she should do with the birds and how to make the area safe.

Due to the volume of dead birds and the concern of possible avian flu, she was advised to call the province and have a conservation officer collect the birds. She was also urged to put some decals on the glass to make the decking safe for other birds.

Avian flu ruled out

That day Traweger and some of the residents made coloured paper hearts and placed them on the glass to alert the birds. Traweger says it worked for a day a two but it didn't fix the problem.

"I work weekends, so I would come the next week, and then, unfortunately, I found another five and then another five the next weekend. So in total there was about just about 30 dead Bohemian waxwings."

Angela Tremka with SaltHaven West in Regina says the care home gets more than 100 calls about bird strikes each spring. (Fiona Odlum/CBC)

Angela Tremka at SaltHaven West says it's common during spring and fall migration for bird strikes to increase in urban centres. She says it's typically a busy time for staff at the facility. 

"We get at least 100 birds … that actually have survived the collision that people found and brought into the the clinic for rehabilitation," she said.

Tremka says while the fermented berries are an issue, the glass walls are the bigger concern.

She advised Traweger and the management at Eden Care Communities to reach out to Nature Regina and their "bird-friendly city team" to find a long-term solution to the problem.

'Feather-friendly tape is highly effective, affordable and you still have a view,' says Jeffrey Gamble. (Fiona Odlum/CBC)

The volunteer-led team's goal is to make Regina a safe city for birds. When they heard about the bird strikes at the care home they knew exactly how to fix the problem. 

Team member Jeffrey Gamble says the old ways of protecting birds aren't effective and recommends a special kind of tape to put on unsafe windows.

"The feather-friendly tape is highly effective, affordable, minimally impactful on your view," Gamble said. "It's a much better solution [than] a hawk silhouette or some sort of a UV decal."

This tape's design is based on the recommendations of Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) Canada to warn birds away from glass. It is applied to the glass with a five-centimetre grid of small squares, which tells the fliers there are no bird-sized gaps for them to pass through. Human eyes can tune out the squares, similar to the way a window screen is barely noticeable unless it's focused on.

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Hundreds of birds saved

Gamble believes by placing the tape on the outdoor decking glass of the care home could save hundreds of birds.

"If this one deck, let's just say, is responsible for 50 bird fatalities in one year, in 10 years that's 500 birds. We can come out here in the course of two hours on a Saturday, address the issue and they will never have that problem again."

Birds like these cedar waxwings are known to wander like bands of vagabonds across Canada looking for fruit. (Katriona Mitchell)

While the team is happy knowing it saved future bird strikes at this location, their greatest joy comes from businesses stepping up and doing their part, too.

For team member Elaine Ehman, helping deal with the dead birds was rewarding on two-levels: the business wanted to help prevent bird strikes while also improving the life of the people who call the place home.

Elaine Ehman with the Bird Friendly City Team places feather-friendly tape on glass partition. (Fiona Odlum/CBC)

"One of the residents came out and said, 'Oh, I'm so glad that you're doing something to fix this because I love birds," Ehman recalled.

Ehman and Gamble say about 100 private homes have purchased the tape through Nature Regina, and they're hoping more businesses will invest in protecting the birds that call Regina home.

Nature Regina will be hosting an event on Saturday, May 14 in celebration of World Migratory Bird Day.