Rush to build homes after Ontario election could spell trouble for birds, says national charity

Rush to build homes after Ontario election could spell trouble for birds, says national charity

A Toronto-based wildlife charity says the estimated 25 million bird deaths that occur each year in Ontario due to bird-building collisions will only grow with promises by all parties in the upcoming election to create more housing in order to alleviate the province’s deepening housing crisis.

Birds, like frogs, are widely considered to be an environmental bellwether, a proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change — and here in North America, birds are vanishing at an alarming rate.

FLAP Canada said it wants all parties to enshrine bird-friendly design concepts for new buildings into Ontario’s Building Code in order minimize the impact millions of new homes would have on the already staggering toll of birds killed by collisions with office towers, apartment buildings and single-detached homes.

Michael Mesure, the organization’s executive director, said despite the fact that housing and environmental issues are connected through bird deaths, it’s been hard to gain traction on the issue of bird-friendly design, which he said would only add “negligible” costs to a developer’s bottom line.

Cost of bird-friendly measures is ‘negligible’

“I think there’s this mind’s eye perspective that what we ask is either too much or is just going to interfere with the development of new construction, costs go up, esthetics,” Mesure said.

“It’s simple, it’s effective and, quite frankly, the cost is proven to be quite negligible.”

The window of a home is covered with bird-proofing stickers. FLAP Canada says it wants all political parties to enshrine bird-friendly design concepts for new buildings into Ontario’s Building Code. (Submitted by Angela Mulholland)

The measures vary, and costs range from free to millions of dollars. They can be as simple as adding stickers to windows and moving plants toward the centre of buildings, but they can also be as complicated as modifying an entire building’s design.

Still, advocates say the price is worth it — and major Ontario cities such as London, Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto are already doing it. But bird conservationists want the standards applied to all new construction provincewide.

There no sense whether that message has had any resonance with the Ontario Liberal Party or the pro-business Progressive Conservative Party, which polling suggests is the perceived front-runner in the June 2 election.

The PCs have already pledged to build 1.5 million new homes in the next decade while lowering bureaucratic hurdles for developers. Mesure said it’s critical that bird-friendly measures be adopted before the residential construction blitz is set to begin.

“People’s homes represent 50 per cent of bird deaths across the country,” Mesure said. “People don’t understand the gravity of it because there’s only one or two birds that they see hitting a window.

“We all have a role in this.” 

Bird-watching a billion-dollar industry

Mesure said what’s often overlooked is that bird-watching is big business in Ontario. While there are no official estimates of the economic activity generated by bird-watching, U.S. data suggests it could be a billion-dollar industry.

According to a 2016 report published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, birding as an industry generated a $95-billion output.

A group of bird-watchers poses at Point Pelee, Ont. FLAP Canada argues bird-watching is big business, with the country’s estimated seven million birders spending just over $1 billion a year on equipment, trips, bird feeders and seed. (Josiah Sinanan/CBC)

“People love birds,” Mesure said, noting that Canada’s estimated seven million birders spend just over $1 billion a year on equipment, trips, bird feeders and seed.

So far, only the New Democrats and the Green Party of Ontario have agreed to implement the measures should they take office.

The pledge doubles down on previous efforts made by both parties to have bird-friendly standards recognized in the provincial legislature with a 2019 private member’s bill sponsored by the NDP’s Chris Glover, who is running for re-election in the Toronto riding of Spadina-Fort York. 

Issue gaining little traction on campaign trail

The proposed environmental protection seems to have little resonance with voters, according to Carol Dyck, the Green Party’s candidate for the hotly contested riding of London North Centre, despite the fact there is high interest among those she’s canvassed at the doorstep to lower the environmental footprint of their homes.

“I will say there is a huge interest across the city in all different neighbourhoods that people want to get involved in having a more Earth-friendly home.”

A woman stands at a corner near election signs as she waits to cross the street in the hotly contested riding of London North Centre. Enshrining bird-friendly protection into Ontario’s Building Code has gained little traction on the campaign trail, according to the Green Party of Ontario candidate in the riding. (Colin Butler)

Dyck said while people are interested in greening their homes with things such as pollinator gardens and green roofs, there seems to be little interest in protecting the birds those greening measures would attract.

“Birds specifically? Not so much,” she said.

It may seem like a surprising disconnect, especially when it’s believed that half of the estimated 25 million bird deaths that happen in Ontario as a result of building collisions each year are the result of slamming into a kitchen or living room window.

Advocates say they’ll keep pushing to get the issue the attention they believe it deserves in an election that’s been dominated by housing and the high cost of living.

“For us, this would be an absolute no-brainer. We would support changes to the Building Code so we can make sure species of birds are saved,” Dyck said. “It’s a very simple thing to do, and it would save thousands and thousands of birds each year.”