The Doc Project

A million birds die in Toronto every year, and she's trying to save them

Cities are dangerous places when you're a migratory bird. In the wee hours of the morning, Lori Nichols takes to the streets to save them.
Lori Nichols stands on a street corner during morning rush hour in Toronto's financial district, watching for birds that need her help. (Zachary Finkelstein)

By Kalli Anderson

It's 5:30 am on a chilly spring morning and Lori Nichols is speed-walking the streets of Toronto's downtown core. She darts across streetcar tracks mid-block and takes shortcuts through concrete courtyards surrounded by glass towers.

She is wearing nylon camping pants and a fleece vest, and she's carrying a backpack and a net on a pole. The net is for trapping fallen birds.

Lori scans the ground as she walks, looking for birds along the edges of buildings. "I'm looking at all those little nooks and crannies," she says. Unlike most downtown pedestrians who are focused on getting from point A to point B, Lori finds she has "a different view of the buildings, and a different view of the city completely" while she's on patrol.

Lori Nichols holds an unconscious Lincoln's Sparrow moments after it flew into a window in downtown Toronto. (Zachary Finkelstein)
Lori is part of small team of volunteers who hit the streets of Toronto every morning during the spring and fall looking for migratory birds that have been injured, stunned or killed in collisions with glass buildings and windows.

Most of the volunteers belong to an organization called The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP). Michael Mesure is FLAP's executive director. He founded the organization back in 1989, after a friend told him that birds passing through the city during the migration seasons sometimes died in collisions with buildings. A lifelong bird-lover, Michael went downtown at dawn and found several dead birds lying on the sidewalk. 

"Something happened to me that day that not only shocked me, but sort of put me into a new world of thinking that this was an issue that just couldn't be ignored," remembers Michael.

Something happened to me that day that not only shocked me, but sort of put me into a new world of thinking that this was an issue that just couldn't be ignored.- Michael Mesure, founder, FLAP (The Fatal Light Awareness Program)

Dead birds collected by Fatal Light Awareness Project (F.L.A.P.) volunteers displayed on the floor of the atrium of the Royal Ontario Museum in March 2014. (Zachary Finkelstein)
An estimated one million birds are killed in collisions with buildings in Toronto every year, and an estimated 25 million across Canada.

Since Michael started FLAP more than a quarter century ago, the group has advocated for more protections for migratory birds in Toronto including bird-friendly development guidelines that the city made mandatory for newly constructed buildings in 2009. But FLAP volunteers still pick up thousands of birds every year.

The birds are drawn to the lights of the city while flying overhead at night. They become disoriented by the lights and eventually, exhausted, make their way down to a tree or bush to eat and rest. In the light of day, they think they are flying to the next tree over, but it is only the reflection of a tree in a glass window. The birds collide head-first with the glass and are often knocked unconscious.

For FLAP volunteers, the goal is to spot the birds right after they hit, while they're still alive, and there's still time to intervene. But some can't be saved. "When you pick up a bird that you think is really not going to make it and you see the process of a bird dying, that's different than just finding a dead bird," says Lori. "That near miss is really hard."

Sometimes, a bird is just stunned by the collision, and if a volunteer can get to it in time and give it some time to rest – Lori likes to make a little nest of tissue inside a brown paper bag in a cardboard box in her backpack – it will sometimes make a full recovery and be ready to be released at a park on the edge of town.

For the bird-rescue volunteers, the thrill of getting to release a rescued bird back into the wild is what keeps them coming back morning after morning, year after year.

"You've been at something for as long as I have, there's that potential that you become hardened, and you forget why you went on this journey in the first place," says Michael. "But releasing a live bird back into the wild, if anything it has become a more emotional experience for me."

Click on the Listen link at the top of this page to follow Lori on one of her morning missions, and join her as she works to save the life of a Lincoln Sparrow. 

Music for this documentary is by Sauna Music (Micah Smith and Jordy Walker)

About the Producer

Kalli Anderson (Robby Reis)
Kalli Anderson is an award-winning audio producer, writer and filmmaker based in Toronto. She has produced radio documentaries, news reports and current affairs segments for CBC Radio (The Doc Project, Out in the Open, Dispatches, The World This Weekend). Her writing has appeared in The Walrus, Chatelaine, Today's Parent, THIS Magazine, Toronto Life, The Grid, Eye Weekly and The Globe and Mail's online edition. Her short films have screened in festivals across North America. Her audio documentaries have won an RTDNA Adrienne Clarkson Award for Diversity Reporting and been nominated for a Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) award.