Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hoping for a not-so-big day

WARNING: This post contains images of dead birds. I encourage you to read on. I feel showing these images is very important to the issue at hand. If you just can't look at that, here's a link to some Sharp-tailed Grouse I saw on Manitoulin Island.

Tomorrow, I'm making what could be called a pilgrimage for Ontario birders. It's the best place to see birds at the best time of year to see them. In North-West Ohio, Kenn Kaufman takes part in a very large birding week. In fact, it's The Biggest Week in American Birding. Ours happens in and around Point Pelee and Pelee Island (home to the Pelee Island Bird Observatory). That's very close to North-West Ohio. Only a few miles apart actually, separated by lake Erie, these two places make two of the most significant stops for migrating birds in north America. They are located where parts of both the Mississippi and the Atlantic Flyways come together.

Note: I know cats kill MANY birds a year. We don't usually let our cat outside. 
She must have escaped an open window. Hence the fact that she's on the roof.

So why is this post called, "Hoping for a not-so-big day?" Well because today I did a different kind of birding. It still involved waking before the sun rose, heading to a specific 'hotspot', and searching for birds. The difference was that most of the birds we'd be seeing would be dying, injured or dead. Today, I am volunteering with an organization called FLAP. That stands for Fatal Light Awareness Program. Their full name can be a bit misleading. I'll explain that subtlety later. What FLAP does every morning during spring and fall migration is head downtown Toronto before the throngs of people arrive and collect dead and injured birds.
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher with a really bad looking eye.
Why are there enough dead and injured birds to warrant an organization to collect them? The reason is two fold. Firstly, at night, birds use the constellations to help them navigate as they migrate and tall buildings with lights on all night confuse them (hence the name Fatal Light Awareness Program). They get lost in the maze of skyscrapers. Secondly, during the day, reflective glass buildings basically make the buildings invisible to birds. For example, when a bird is in a tree or garden near a glass building and they see another tree next to them, they fly over to it, expecting to find more shelter and food. Instead, it was only a reflection of the tree they were already in and they strike the glass, often killing them. When the glass is transparent, they see 'decorative' foliage inside as another safe place to be. You might think they wouldn't fly fast enough to kill themselves when just hopping from tree to tree. Think about the last time you banged your shin on a coffee table. You didn't expect it to be there so you walked pretty swiftly into it. Or, think of the last time you bit your tongue. Through the searing pain, you might wonder, "Why the hell was I biting a French Fry so effing hard that I made my tongue bleed for ten minutes?" My point is, you aren't aware of how much force is involved in even the smallest thing. So I'd guess bird aren't either. They just do things.
Olive-sided Flycatcher.

If they do survive a strike, they aren't in the clear yet. A stunned bird will just lie there and wait out the dizziness. That's all well and good except for the gulls. Gulls are smart birds. They actually sit around waiting in areas they know birds hit windows. I witnessed this behavior this morning. As the sun rose, gulls stated appearing out of nowhere. All around me I could hear and see White-throated Sparrows. So when a small bird hits the glass, gulls are there to eat them alive. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against nature running it's course, but when a building is involved, we altered that course beyond what's fair to the songbirds. So in this case, I think it's OK to intervene and save them.
A bag of dead Brown Creepers.
The people that run FLAP are Michael Mesure and Susan Krajnc. They founded FLAP in 1993 and are still the only paid employees. The rest of the people are volunteers. I found out about FLAP by attending a meeting to become a volunteer. I had no problem waking before dawn to help them out before heading to work everyday. Then something happened. I had twins and my volunteer days were over before they even started. Still wanting to help, I brought the idea of working on some sort of advertising for them to my employer. Thankfully, DDB Canada, where I work, was very supportive of me helping them out. My partner and I got to work thinking about how we could help spread the word. The result of that thinking was The Common Birds of Toronto. It was basically a field guide like any other that profiled ten very common birds you can find in Toronto. The difference with our guide was that all the birds in the paintings were dead. The copy went on to explain what each species dealt with in the event of a window strike. Often, it means death. Some people thought it was a little extreme but it's an extreme situation. Millions of birds die every year. Other people thought it was a great piece. It was handed out to people on their morning commute to help them understand what was going on in the buildings they worked in every day.
American Woodcock with various others including a few Canada Warblers.
Canada Warblers are listed as Threatened.
Today, FLAP is a key witness in a couple court of cases where Ecojustice and Ontario Nature are actually suing building owners with cruelty to animals, among other charges, for not doing anything about their problem buildings. It gets really scary when you hear that some of the birds dying are either 'species at risk' or even threatened. It's not only little songbirds. FLAP have collected everything from Hummingbirds to bigger things like Saw-whet Owls, Sharp-shinned Hawks and even an American Bittern. Since it's inception 1993, FLAP has collected over 52,000 birds consisting of 164 species (24 of which are in population decline). Thats a life list of the worst kind. Things aren't all dark though, the birds they do find alive are sent to wildlife rehabilitation facilities like The Toronto Wildlife Centre and are released far from the city so they might continue on their trip to Canada's Boreal forests to mate. Also, laws have been passed that any new construction in the city of Toronto must take precautions for bird safety. That's a huge win for FLAP. But if you ask Michael or Susan, it's a huge win for the birds.

My favorite bird, a Brown Thrasher. This one really put a lump in my throat.
I named my son after this bird, that's how much I love it.

Close-up of a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

The worst kind of life list...

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