Making Window Collisions a Priority in Canada’s Capital

Safe Wings Ottawa recently held its annual display to raise awareness about the dangers birds face and encourage action.

It was a mournful scene last week in Canada’s capital city: More than 1,500 dead birds lay in quiet, neat rows on the floor of City Hall. The birds, which included scores of woodpeckers, kinglets, warblers, buntings, American Woodcock, and even a Snowy Owl, were a small sampling of the many thousands of birds representing 103 species that died from window strikes last year in Ottawa. Behind the dead birds stood miniature model buildings that represented the dangers birds face. As in real life, the silvery facades mirrored the greenery of tiny trees and bushes, recreating an illusion that so often confuses birds.

Safe Wings Ottawa, a volunteer-run program that monitors buildings to document bird collisions, curated the grim display to send a message to elected officials and the public about the issue of window collisions. To create the scene, volunteers unpacked and arranged the frozen birds, collected in 2018, in a coordinated feat of activism that Safe Flight volunteers have done every year since 2015. After setting up, volunteers remain on site with an information booth to answer any questions. The group invited provincial and federal elected officials, city council members, and the mayor to attend the event.

The sight of the dead birds often provides more than a shock. “It’s eye-opening to people to learn about collisions, but it’s also eye-opening to learn about how many birds we have locally,” says Anouk Hoedeman, director of Safe Wings Ottawa. “They know the birds that might come to their backyard feeder, but most people have no idea how many species pass through Ottawa, migrating along the Ottawa River to go nest in the boreal forest.”

Up to a billion birds are killed every year in North America when they collide with buildings and windows, a problem that has reached epidemic proportions. Bright lights and windows reflecting nearby habitat can confuse the birds, causing them to either crash into a building or run into the glass. Like elsewhere in North America, migration is the worst time of year for window strikes in Ottawa, which is when Safe Wings rallies its dozen core volunteers to patrol problematic buildings and collect dead and injured birds.

Safe Wings Ottawa formed in 2013 after Hoedeman saw media reports that an entire flock of Bohemian Waxwings had collided with a glass walkway in the city. Dozens of birds were killed and injured, and a disturbed Hoedeman vowed to take action. As a program of the Ottawa Field Naturalists Club, Safe Wings is dedicated to conservation action. Displaying the actual strike victims is an important tactic. “Showing people the birds makes a big difference,” Hoedeman says.

Currently, both the city and federal government in Ottawa are developing bird-friendly guidelines for buildings. Hoedeman says that once adopted, these guidelines will be mandatory for any new construction or major retrofits of federal buildings in the city. Instead of reinventing the wheel, though, they’ll be based on the city of Toronto’s bird-friendly guidelines, some of the most stringent in North America. To implement bird-safe guidelines nationally, Safe Wings is working with Environment Canada and the Canada Standards Association, which recently went through a comment period on the issue. “It takes a long time for these things to work their way through the system," Hoedeman says, "but we’re optimistic that change is coming."

As awareness about collisions increases, Safe Wings fights for effective solutions and against strategies that don't work. The group has witnessed good intentions gone wrong, such as the recent restoration of the city’s National Arts Center, completed in 2017. The building incorporated bird-friendly designs that simply weren’t effective. “It’s often three steps forward and two steps back,” Hoedeman says. “If you’re going to make something bird-friendly, do it right. Follow the expert advice. Don’t just take the architect’s word for it, unless you know that architect has a reputation for bird-friendly design."

As spring migration ramps up, Safe Wings Ottawa will network with avian rehabilitation centers and bird-collision activists across the United States and Canada to get the latest on which species are incoming. But Hoedeman says the best tips about strikes come from the public. About half of all window strikes occur at private residences, a fact that makes homeowners vital in preventing window strikes and alerting groups like Safe Wings of injured or killed birds. Responding to these calls, Safe Wings volunteers swoop in to gather what is ultimately a tiny fraction of the actual number of strike victims. In doing so, they’ll make sure that the birds are given a voice at City Hall the next year, even after their death.