Carrying two butterfly nets and wearing shorts, a bright yellow windbreaker and a baseball cap, Brian Armstrong cuts quite a figure among the suits and stilettos of Toronto's financial district in the morning rush.
Passersby would find him even more unusual if they knew what was in his backpack – three wild birds: two live, one dead.
Mr. Armstrong is a veteran of the Fatal Light Awareness Program, or FLAP. This remarkable band of passionate volunteers has been campaigning for nearly 20 years to reduce the annual toll of death and injury that befalls migrating birds when they collide with city office towers.
The group has made some important progress under the dogged leadership of founder Michael Mesure and his crew of 50 to 60 helpers. In partnership with the City of Toronto, it has persuaded many buildings to turn off their lights after dark and some to coat their windows with dotted film and other coverings that make them visible to birds.
But thousands of birds still run into buildings as they move through Toronto on their way to northern breeding grounds. Mr. Armstrong says that FLAP once collected 500 birds, dead and alive, in a six-hour period. His top count on one morning this season is 49.
A retired lawyer of 63, he performs his patrols five months a year, spring and fall. When I met him one morning this week at around 7, he had already been searching the glass canyons of downtown for 2½ hours.
His collection this morning is modest. Because of our early spring, many birds have already passed through and the migration is petering out. The two live birds found on the pavement are warblers, a family of delicate birds, noted for their bright song, that are a favourite of birdwatchers. One is an American redstart, black with orange wing flashes; the other a magnolia warbler with black mask and striped yellow breast.
Mr. Armstrong is keeping them in two small paper bags in his pack. In a separate paper bag is the dead bird. Probably a Swainson's thrush, it has a grey back and speckled breast. It looks impossibly fragile in death.
Volunteers usually take their live birds to the Toronto Wildlife Centre in Downsview for treatment of splintered beaks or broken feathers. Dead ones go to a storage freezer at City Hall next to the office of Scarborough Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, a keen environmentalist. When we look inside later, it is packed full of birds in clear plastic bags: an oriole, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, an American woodcock, a whip-poor-will.
Over its two decades, FLAP has retrieved 55,000 birds from 164 species, 22 of them listed as threatened. At the end of the season, FLAP donates the dead birds to the ornithologists at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Being a FLAP volunteer requires more than a tolerance for early alarm bells. You need sharp eyes, too. Injured birds often crawl into corners to avoid detection. Unless the volunteers move fast, marauding gulls often devour them.
“The gulls have found that this is an alternative food source for them,” says Mr. Mesure. “They will take a bird on the ground whether it is dead or alive and they will swallow it whole. It's incredible watching them – the whole body, gone.”
An immunity to ridicule also comes in handy. “The comments we get with these nets,” exclaims Mr. Mesure. “People think we're nuts.”
Volunteer Marlize Reedijk, 73, once attracted attention when she dashed across Bay Street in pursuit of a Virginia rail, a long-beaked marsh bird that got trapped in an office building terrace then bolted into the busy main drag of the financial district.
“It was lost and traumatized,” says Ms. Reedijk. “Would you believe I ran after this bird – and traffic stopped and I caught the bird? It was just a miracle.”
No more miraculous, perhaps, than the dedication of Bay Street’s early-morning bird brigade.