Dead birds on display to raise awareness about dangers of glass buildings

What do a billion dead birds look like?

Hard to imagine, but Safe Wings Ottawa hopes that a thousand is plenty enough to spark conversation about what we can all do to help solve a disturbing problem: Birds can’t perceive glass, and our cities are filled with reflective facades. One billion is the estimated annual number of birds that crash into buildings across the continent.

For the fourth year running, Safe Wings Ottawa will display a stunning array of dead birds collected by volunteer patrollers in 2017, from the tiniest hummingbirds to larger species such as owls; see them for yourself at Ottawa City Hall on Monday, February 26th, 3:30 – 6:30 p.m. Most of the year, the birds’ bodies are kept in volunteers’ freezers — a month before the event they’re transferred to the much colder freezers of the Canadian Wildlife Service lab at Carleton University so they’re “nice and frozen,” says volunteer coordinator Susan Phillips, for the duration of the display. (After the event, the specimens are donated to museums and universities for scientific and educational purposes.)

Gathered together, the birds make a grim point, but also allow volunteers to share their experiences and constructive ideas for tackling an important conservation issue. Can we stop, or at least reduce, the numbers of bird fatalities? Fortunately, the answer is yes.

Safe Wings volunteers patrol every part of the city, but especially downtown during migration. Birds lucky enough to survive crashes are taken to the Wild Bird Care Centre in Nepean, where their injuries can be treated. Very lucky birds are eventually released back into the wild.

The not-so-lucky ones at least fulfill an ambassadorial role after death, as part of Safe Wings’ campaign to spread the word about solutions — placing backyard bird feeders strategically or closing shades on problem windows at problem times are among the simplest. Glass panes that have patterns manufactured into them are becoming more common among both individual homeowners and large businesses and institutions.

Photos courtesy Ottawa Eco-Talent Network

This year, Safe Wings’ volunteers include 16 University of Ottawa students, who developed the event’s public-relations plan and materials as part of their graduate studies in Communications. They’ll be on hand to greet and guide members of the public through the display.

Thanks to campaigns like this, awareness of the issue is growing.

“Homeowners are starting to do something about it,” says Safe Wings founder Anouk Hoedeman, who is gratified that city officials are working on bird-friendly building guidelines for developers. They won’t be mandatory (as they are in places like Toronto, where the original bird-rescue organization FLAP, was founded), but it is a start.

City Hall has had problems of its own with a glass walkway that has created its share of bird deaths, including dozens of Bohemia Waxwings in 2017. Now, simple, dotted window treatments are successfully deterring birds from crashing. It’s hard to say how many bird lives will be saved by that alone, but it’s a prominent example of what can be done.

Bird by bird, the message is taking off in the right direction.