Keeping the Lights Out Downtown to Save Our Birds
From the Nest, Issue 10
by Barry Coombs and Sara Shwadchuck
A thriving bird population is essential for biodiversity and a healthy climate. Birds pollinate plants, distribute seeds, and control pests. Many studies have shown that they contribute to happiness in human beings, particularly during the pandemic.
Our team of volunteers with Bird Friendly Hamilton Burlington (BFHB) is part of a nationwide Nature Canada project to make cities bird friendly. A major local goal for BFHB is to help implement a Lights Out program during spring and fall migration to minimize bird deaths from collisions with buildings.
Many birds use the stars to navigate at night and are confused by and attracted to the nocturnal lighting of buildings. Scientists estimate that between one hundred million and one billion birds die annually because of nocturnal lighting in the United States alone. In Canada, another twenty five million perish. This has contributed to the loss of at least 25% of our bird population over the last fifty years.
During migration periods, BFHB participates in the Global Bird Rescue (GBR) program by monitoring bird-building collisions. GBR documents collisions, raises awareness, and inspires governments, businesses and homeowners to protect birds in two simple ways – by turning off unnecessary lighting at night and by treating windows with bird friendly markers to help prevent daytime collisions.
It’s difficult for us to accurately monitor every building in Hamilton, for several reasons. Architectural features such as upper mezzanines and recessed windows are inaccessible to GBR volunteers. Many dead birds are taken by scavengers such as rats or are swept up by building maintenance, while some birds survive the initial impact and fly away to die elsewhere. In fact, most birds that die in collisions are not recovered and recorded.
But, this fall, in just one week of the eight to ten week migration period, the GBR team found four dead birds in two small areas of downtown Hamilton and Westdale – two Golden-crowned Kinglets, one Brown Creeper, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
This number may seem low but the team of volunteers is small and GBR was only able to monitor a few buildings. We also know that for every bird recovered, at the very least, ten more are not. This small sample indicates a much wider problem throughout Hamilton.
About thirty years ago, in Toronto, a group of citizens founded the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP). They have created awareness of the preventable mass death of migratory birds and of the need to dramatically reduce unnecessary lighting at night.
They have also led the way in the development of bird friendly measures in the construction and retro-fitting of buildings, setting the standard across the continent and even globally. Today, 43 North American cities, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Dallas have followed their lead and developed Lights Out programs.
Lights Out programs offer proven financial benefits through energy savings. In 2005, Toronto Hydro asked the managers of over one hundred buildings, including the CN Tower and several downtown banks, to turn off unneeded lights during the migration seasons. While the utility cited environmental awareness and energy conservation, it also made the case for business efficiency.
The role of local municipalities in the success of these programs is absolutely crucial. In addition, school boards, academic institutions, library systems, corporations, and property managers should all be on board. Individual citizens can also take steps to prevent birds from striking the windows of their homes and apartments.
Minimizing nocturnal lighting helps participating organizations meet their sustainability goals and recognition for sustainable, bird-friendly practices can attract environmentally-conscious talent to join local businesses. A city can be recognized as a leader in sustainability and conservation.
Hamilton does not have a Lights Out program. At the March 29, 2021 meeting of the General Issues Committee, a report was introduced regarding the new Biodiversity Action Plan. The document asked for “quick wins”.
BFHB delegated to the Committee and proposed a Lights Out program (and even offered to provide advice around implementation). Nothing was done.
Repeated attempts to further explore the issue with our Councillors were met with mostly silence or dismissal. A few Councillors and a City staffer did respond telling us that City Hall and other principal municipal buildings use motion detectors at night to minimize lighting.
Our team checked City Hall seven times this fall at different times of the night and found almost the entire building lit up each time, even on the weekend! On Saturday, October 24 and again on Wednesday, October 27, with fall migration still underway, City Hall was lit from within and also floodlit from without; a waste of energy and money.
Toronto, in sharp contrast to Hamilton, formed a committee of stakeholders in 2005 to address this and other related issues. Urban planners, developers, architects and environmental groups all participated in creating green development standards.
Since 2010, the Toronto Green Standard has incorporated mandatory bird-friendly measures and, on July 14, 2021, the City of Toronto adopted its fourth revision to this standard, which will come into effect in May 2022.
This puts Hamilton over fifteen years behind Toronto when it comes to implementing green and bird-friendly standards.
It’s not all bad news, however. Last week, we were invited to meet with the Ward 3 Climate Action Community Coordinator. Our team is very grateful to Councillor Nrinder Nann and her office for this opportunity.
The Mohawk College Sustainability team has provided helpful information about their bird friendly measures on campus and McMaster University has a bird-friendly committee that has recently treated some problem windows with markers.
BFHB will continue to work to have Hamilton and Burlington certified by Nature Canada as Bird Friendly Cities. A Lights Out program would be a cornerstone of this desirable designation.
There are many ways that Hamilton residents can help birds thrive. Fill your garden with native plants. Keep your cats inside. Treat your windows with inexpensive markers to prevent collisions. Limit residential lighting at night during migration (late-April to late-May and mid-August to the end of October).
The BFHB team has a letter campaign on our Bird Friendly Hamilton Burlington Facebook page. Write your Councillor and tell them that you want a Lights Out program and a bird friendly city now!
Barry Coombs is a visual artist, avid birder and co-chair of BFHB; he also volunteers with the Royal Botanical Gardens’ Long Watch program; Barry has participated in many bird counts and has led outings for several birding clubs
Sarah Shwadchuck is co-chair of BFHB and the team leader for Global Bird Rescue; she has also volunteered for Hamilton FalconWatch, The Hamilton Aviary and with sea turtle programs in Mexico and Costa Rica; Sara graduated from the Social Work program at Ryerson University and has worked as a child and youth counsellor for 12 years