Birds and Glass Buildings in Toronto

+ Matthew Kahn

The New York Times reports a story about birds and glass buildings in Toronto.  This city has built a large number of glass buildings and birds such as the songbird are flying into them. Millions of such songbirds died due to the impact with the glass.

Perhaps because of familiarity, the urbanites of the bird world, like house sparrows, pigeons and gulls  are much less prone to crashing into glass…

That’s adaptation! The bird deaths are an unintended consequence of the rise of glass buildings in cities.

Toronto’s modern skyline began to rise in the 1960s, giving it a high proportion of modern, glass-clad structures, forming a long wall along the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. That barrier crosses several major migratory flight paths, the first large structures birds would encounter coming south from the northern wilderness.

Though those factors make Toronto’s buildings particularly lethal, Professor Klem was quick to say that the city also leads North America when it comes to addressing the problem.

After years of conducting rescue and recovery missions and prodding the city to include bird safety in its design code for new buildings, FLAP has recently begun using the courts to help keep birds alive. It is participating in two legal cases using laws normally meant to protect migratory birds from hunting and industrial hazards to prosecute the owners of two particularly problematic buildings.

Bird advocates are angry that developers and architects have been slow to adopt two apparently low cost solutions to the problem.

One especially effective, if unpopular, method of reducing the threat to birds, Mr. Mesure said, is simply to cover the outside of windows up to the height of adjacent trees with the finely perforated plastic film often used to turn transit buses into rolling billboards. The film can be printed with advertising or decorative patterns, although the group has found that a repetitive pattern of small circles made from the same adhesive plastic is both effective and less likely to prompt aesthetic objections.

For new buildings, the solution can be as simple as etching patterns into its glass. A German glass company is also developing windows that it hopes can take advantage of the ability of birds to see ultraviolet light, by including warning patterns that are invisible to humans.

The economics question here is one of the aesthetics.  How much “uglier” would the buildings be if the developers listened to the ecologists? Is there a “win-win” solution here?

Cross-posted from Environmental and Urban Economics.

Tile image by Reto Fetz.

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