Property Managers Face New Risks in Changing Bird-Window Collision Landscape

This Wood Thrush (a Species at Risk in Ontario) was injured after colliding with a Toronto building. Thankfully, they were rescued by a FLAP volunteer and received medical care at the Toronto Wildlife Centre, and were able to continue their migratory journey. Photo: Rob Mueller

Collisions with buildings, both during the day and at night, pose a lethal threat to bird species worldwide. FLAP Canada has been working to protect birds from this leading cause of death since 1993. Despite our best efforts, many challenges in these early days made it difficult for us to advocate for bird-safe practices at commercial properties. Effective collision deterrents weren’t yet readily available, reputable bird-safe standards weren’t in place, and bird protection laws were not consistently enforced.

However, in more recent years, the landscape has changed dramatically. Property owners and managers can now be held accountable for the environmental impact of their building and no longer have the option of ignoring bird deaths at their buildings.

There are now effective solutions and best practices

Effective, affordable, and aesthetically pleasing bird-safe solutions have now become widely available. Bird-safe standards, such as the mandatory requirements under the Toronto Green Standard and the 2019 Canadian Standards Association’s Bird Friendly Building Design A460:19 standard, are also now in place to guide industry professionals in best-practice solutions to this issue.

Birds are protected by law

Building owners that even unintentionally permit the harm or death of birds through window collisions at their buildings face real legal risks. In Canada, there are enforceable provincial and federal laws designed to protect birds from these collisions, making building owners and operators legally responsible to exercise due diligence to avoid the killing or harming of birds.

Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), it is illegal to harm or kill a federally listed threatened or endangered species. Several federally protected Species at Risk, including Canada Warbler and Wood Thrush, are frequent victims of window collisions. Provinces may also have additional laws that protect birds. For example, the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) in Ontario provides for the protection and conservation of the natural environment. Reflected light from windows that kills and injures migratory birds is considered a ‘contaminant’ under the EPA and discharging it is therefore an offence.

Two prominent legal cases concerning bird-window collisions at commercial buildings in Toronto have highlighted the risks building owners face if they do nothing or make only minimal effort. The ruling in the 2013 legal case showed that owners or managers of buildings that kill or injure birds can be found guilty of an offence under the EPA or SARA, if a Species at Risk is involved.

Enforcement action is becoming increasingly common

Building owners who cause or permit the killing of birds may also be subject to investigation by their provincial environmental agencies. In Ontario, the Ministry of Environment, Conservation, and Parks (MECP) has been increasingly active in responding to complaints and filing investigations against building owners and operators in violation of bird protection laws.

For example, a commercial building in Toronto had a long history of bird collisions. The mirrored glass windows reflected nearby trees, resulting in a maze that was impossible for both local and migratory birds to navigate. Despite being aware of the issue and available solutions, the building owners chose to do nothing.

Eventually, a complaint was filed against the building owners in 2021 for failing to meet provincial and federal law, and MECP became involved in a formal investigation. The building owners were forced to invest in bird-safe treatments to mitigate the threat, but they could have avoided the stress of a formal investigation (and the associated legal/reputational risks) by proactively implementing proven solutions.

Major players are seeing the benefits of embracing bird-safe architecture

The TD Centre installed bird-safe markers (Feather Friendly) in 2021. Photo: Albert Koehl

Last year, the news of what is likely the largest bird-safe building retrofit in North America (and possibly the world) challenged the status quo. Cadillac Fairview (CF), a Canadian commercial real estate company, installed bird collision deterrent markers at their iconic Toronto-Dominion (TD) Centre in Toronto’s Financial District. This retrofit is saving the lives of countless birds and is also challenging other commercial building owners to follow CF’s lead or get left behind.

A bird-safe building, whether designed that way or retrofitted to be bird-safe, has numerous benefits on top of protecting wildlife. Building owners and managers can protect themselves from potential legal prosecution, showcase their commitment to sustainability and green building practices, and pursue certification opportunities such as LEED and BOMA BEST. Being bird-safe is also an attractive selling point to draw in prospective building tenants.

The changing landscape makes it clear that property owners and managers that continue to ignore bird collisions at their buildings do so at their own risk. With all the benefits of bird-safe buildings, taking proactive steps to mitigate bird deaths just makes sense.