The 4.3-million-square-foot TD Centre in downtown Toronto comprises six towers and a banking pavilion. Most feature matte-black steel I-beams, a calling card of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The first three buildings were among his last projects (he died in 1969, the year after it opened), and they dominated the skyline. Heritage Toronto, a charity, salutes the complex as a “carefully conserved mid-century modern gem.”
Yet even as architecture buffs gazed skyward at the imposing grandeur of the 55-storey TD Tower, a small coterie of avian conservationists noted the small, broken bodies of birds piling up at its base. Michael Mesure, executive director of FLAP Canada, a charity that advocates on bird-building collisions, said the complex has windows that reflect the open space and landscape vegetation around it during the day, and the black facade makes it disappear into the night. Both can be deadly for birds.
“Since 2000, we’ve picked up over 10,000 birds in and around the buildings at the TD Centre” of more than 60 species, he said.
People learn cues that signal the presence of glass. Birds don’t. They’re particularly vulnerable to reflective glass at lower floors, which can create an illusion of welcoming sky or wooded habitat by reflecting the surrounding environment. They often also mistake transparent windows for unobstructed passages. The result is high-velocity impacts causing severe head trauma. At night, artificial light from buildings attracts migrating birds into the city.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, up to one billion birds die from building strikes annually in the U.S. alone. Toronto is a hotspot because it’s situated along one of the continent’s busiest migration corridors.
After years of complaints from activists, work began on Tuesday at the TD Centre – one of Canada’s largest office complexes – to install countermeasures to reduce the daylight collisions.
A vinyl film featuring small dots spaced five centimetres apart will be applied to the outside of windows in several of the complex’s six buildings. The work will continue into the fall and resume next year, said Paul Groleau, vice-president of Feather Friendly Technologies, the company that manufactures the film in Mississauga. All told, more than 100,000 square feet of film are needed to cover the buildings’ windows on the first several stories.
“The idea is you’re breaking up that surface reflection of the glass,” Mr. Groleau said. “So if a bird’s booting along at the window, they’ll go, ‘Whoa, there’s something there!’ And they’ll avoid it.”
Bird populations across North America are declining owing to collisions and other factors such as pesticide use, habitat loss and climate change. A study published in the journal Science in 2019 evaluated population changes for 529 species in North America: It found a net loss of 2.9 billion birds since 1970, a decline of 29 per cent.
Mr. Mesure said the installation at the TD Centre will be the largest bird-safe building retrofit in North America, possibly worldwide. At other sites where the product has been installed, he added, collisions declined by more than 80 per cent.
Mr. Mesure said few Torontonians appreciate the scale of the problem.
“We’re all just either just waking up, or we’re just making our way to work, when all this is happening,” he said. “By the time people come in to work, it’s pretty much over. Birds that survived are hidden away. [The ones that died have] been scavenged, in some cases they’ve been swept up. They’re off the sidewalks before anyone sees how bad it really can be.”
Mr. Mesure’s eyes were opened early one morning in 1990, when he discovered hundreds of dead birds blanketing Toronto’s financial district. A few years later, he founded the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), which in its earliest days focused on night-time collisions. He’s been in frequent contact with TD Centre’s owners and managers ever since.
Pearl Shore is a newcomer activist. In 2019, she founded Bird Safe Buildings Across Canada, a community-led initiative. Formerly a long-time customer of TD, she closed her accounts over dissatisfaction with the response to TD Centre’s collision problem, and had dozens of friends and relatives write letters to the bank’s chief executive officer. She started social media campaigns and a petition that got 75,000 signatures.
“We were pretty relentless,” she said. “We basically told them, we’re not going away until it’s done.”
There are myriad varieties of glass, and a single pane’s appearance varies with the seasons and even the hour, reflecting light at some times while appearing completely transparent at others.
Cadillac Fairview Corp., whose properties include the TD complex, struggled with collisions at another Toronto site, the low-rise Yonge Corporate Centre (YCC), which features highly-reflective glass. Decades ago, it urged tenants to turn their lights off at night to prevent nocturnal collisions. During the late 1990s, it installed custom-built cables strung with silhouettes of predatory birds, an approach that proved ineffective. In 2007, it applied a film called CollidEscape to windows of a single YCC tenant, but removed it because it obscured the outside view.
These actions proved crucial when EcoJustice, a legal advocacy group specializing in environment-related litigation, commenced a private prosecution charging Cadillac Fairview with offences relating to bird collisions at YCC. The judge acquitted the company in 2013 after concluding its management “acted with due diligence.”
The decision nonetheless had major consequences, because the judge also found that reflected light from YCC’s windows constituted harmful emissions under the province’s Environmental Protection Act. And the judge found that some birds killed at YCC were listed under the Species At Risk Act. Landlords, building owners and managers who chose to ignore the collision issue had been put on notice that they could face such charges too.
“Once that happened, everything began to change,” Mr. Mesure said. He added that in recent years, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment has increasingly followed up on complaints from the public about major bird strikes.
Options for preventing collisions have increased considerably of late. The American Bird Conservancy’s database of collision deterrents lists 93 products for professional use. Feather Friendly says it has installed about five million square feet of its film across North America and in South Korea, Poland, Brazil, Germany and the UK.
Countermeasures are no longer optional in a small number of cities. In 2010, Toronto became the first city globally to make bird-collision countermeasures mandatory in most new buildings. New York City recently introduced a local law requiring most glass on new buildings to meet bird-friendly design standards.
Ms. Shore said she hoped other major players in commercial real estate, such as Oxford Properties Group, BentallGreenOak and Brookfield, will follow Cadillac Fairview’s example.
“This is pretty easy to solve, relative to other problems that we have in society,” she said.
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