The first bird that Brendon Samuels found was a young northern flicker on the sidewalk by the gym at the University of Western Ontario in September, 2018.
He soon had a collection of dead warblers, sparrows, hummingbirds and woodpeckers in the freezer at the Advanced Facility for Avian Research.
For the next three years, as part of his PhD research, Mr. Samuels walked the campus every spring and fall, looking for birds killed by window collisions. One year, the final count was 413.
On the worst day, he stumbled upon 20 cedar waxwings, who had, he assumes, become tipsy on the fermenting berries below one of the university’s shinier buildings, and smashed themselves, unwittingly, into the windows while flying away.
Sometimes, he found the birds still panting on the ground, suffering from a broken wing or a concussion, only to die in his hand.
“I had never been exposed to that kind of suffering,” he says. As a scientist, he knew the loss was exponential – these were juveniles who would never have babies, parents whose babies would now starve, migratory species who would never spread seeds to help grow the land, or eat insects to protect crops.
Some days, he went home in tears to cuddle his parrot, Lester, who made him laugh by humming her own musical compositions and mimicking microwave beeps when she wanted her mashed potatoes heated up.
Mr. Samuels didn’t want to just catalogue bodies. He wanted to solve a problem, and, in this case, he knew there was an effective and relatively cheap solution. So he began to give public presentations, encouraged Western University students and staff to document dead birds themselves, and studied part-time so he could take a job with an environmental group.
Thanks in large part to his advocacy, Western in London, Ont., is now a leader in bird-safe windows, and it’s rare that a dead sparrow is discovered in the shadow of its retrofitted buildings. Today, Mr. Samuels heads to the Ontario Legislature, where Ontario NDP MPP Chris Glover will table a private member’s bill that would make bird-safe measures mandatory in the province’s building code for all new buildings, including single-family homes. More than 50 wildlife and conservation groups have signed a letter calling on the government to support the bill.
Since 1970, according to a 2019 paper in the journal Science, North American bird populations have declined by 30 per cent. Most of the reason is habitat loss, the indirect toll of climate change or human development. But there are two leading direct causes of bird deaths: cats and windows. One of those is a fairly simple problem to solve, points out Mr. Samuels: Put tiny dots on windows so birds can see them.
Counting bird collisions is challenging: Birds may fly away, with a concussion or collapsed air sac, and die later, or their bodies may be eaten by scavengers. The current estimate used by researchers is that between 16 to 42 million birds are killed this way every year this way in Canada – but that’s an older, and likely conservative figure, says Mr. Samuels.
As urban space grows upward and big windows have become popular, the risk to birds has increased, says Michael Mesure, the executive director of FLAP Canada, a bird advocacy groups supporting more sweeping mandatory measures. When he travels to cottage country, he says, “my jaw drops when I see some of these mansions on the lakes that are all glass. I can guarantee you those buildings are killing dozens, if not hundreds of birds a year.”
Birds strike windows because they are confused by the reflection or attracted by light. Glass is a bigger risk than height for buildings; most collisions, says Mr. Samuels, happen at the tree line and below. Toronto, for instance, is a city with a high risk of bird strikes because it’s located beside a large body of water on a migratory bird route, and has a lot of enticing green space.
In 2007, Toronto became the first city in the world to adopt bird-friendly development guidelines, a step that has been adopted by municipalities across the country. Guidelines by the Canadian Standard Association have been used by architects considering bird safety when they design new structures. In some cases, Mr. Mesure says, environmental groups have brought legal action against owners with buildings causing high bird death counts, to press them to make changes.
Making bird-safe measures mandatory for all new construction, says Mr. Samuels, would normalize a relatively inexpensive fix.
This usually involves applying a pattern of dots about five centimetres apart – or the width of a bird’s body – across the surface of the glass. Those one-off owl stickers don’t work, says Mr. Samuels, because birds just fly around them. Windows with screens are usually safe; transparent patio railings are definitely not. While most collisions happen during daytime hours, using blinds and reducing outdoor light pollution can also prevent bird collisions.
People often worry about bird-safe window measures wrecking the view, says Mr. Samuels, but he says most people don’t even notice from the inside when they’re installed in office buildings.
In any event, he argues, it’s a minimal compromise to protect the same birds who help contribute a health environment and bring us joy with their song.
There’s a larger lesson here as well, he says. Given all the hard decisions that climate change will require, he asks, “What does it say about our society, and our elected officials, if we choose not to do the easy stuff?”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article spelled Brendon Samuels's first name incorrectly. This version has been updated.