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Calgary group pushing for more awareness of bird-friendly windows

The Calgary Urban Species Response team has found more than 600 birds and bats downtown since the fall of 2019

Calgary Urban Species Response Team

The Calgary Urban Species Response Team collects and rescues birds that have hit windows in downtown Calgary. // CUSRT Facebook

It’s early on a Sunday morning. The sun is just starting to rise and the streets of downtown Calgary are quiet.

While most Calgarians are still in bed, Kathleen Johnson and a team of volunteers are meeting to walk a route through the city centre, weaving past the towering skyscrapers that make up the familiar skyline.

There is an important reason for the stroll. The Calgary Urban Species Response Team (CUSRT) is on a mission.

“We check for any birds or bats that might have struck glass or might have encountered some other human-caused risks downtown,” Johnson says.

The team has done this during every fall and spring migration since Johnson started the response team in mid-2019.

Hundreds of findings

Earlier that year, Johnson came across some social media posts from Safe Wings Ottawa and Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) in Toronto.

The groups were posting about birds that had been found on the ground near downtown buildings and Johnson wondered if Calgary had a similar problem.

She started CUSRT and since the first formal survey in the fall of 2019, Johnson says the team has recorded 608 findings.

“We’re only downtown for a specific period of time. Those numbers represent just what we’ve seen and what we’ve found,” Johnson says, adding the actual number of window strikes is much higher.

Of the findings, 228 were whole birds. Remnants of birds that are likely to have struck a window before being scavenged by other animals are also recorded.

About five dozen birds and a handful of bats have been found alive, with the majority able to be captured and taken to a wildlife rehabilitation facility.

A photograph of a palm warbler. // Julya Hajnoczky

Photograph and document

Birds that are found dead are collected and passed on to other organizations for research and study.

But first, they are photographed by Calgary visual artist Julya Hajnoczky.

The photographer has been working with CUSRT since its inception and has taken on the role of a documentarian.

Hajnoczky was inspired after doing a residency in Ottawa in 2019. That’s when she connected with Safe Wings Ottawa and joined the group for a walk-along.

“I was really intrigued by the idea and so as soon as I got home to Calgary, I started searching to see if there was anyone in Calgary doing it,” Hajnoczky says.

“And lo and behold, Kathleen had just been starting up the group here in Calgary.”

Powerful imagery

Hajnoczky has created a picture archive of the birds CUSRT has collected. She shares some of the images on social media to help raise awareness.

“One thing I'm really interested in is sharing a bit of a different perspective on these creatures. These little birds that you might see from very far away, might not be able to identify, might have never heard of some of them,” she says.

“This way people can get to know what birds are here in their own city. And just how incredibly beautiful some of these birds are.”

For a project entitled It Must Look Beautiful From Up There, Hajnoczky pierces holes in the photographs in a grid map pattern and lights them from behind.

“The light will glow through and that will look kind of like what you see when you fly over a city at night in an airplane when you look down and you see those glowing grids of the city,” she says.

“Because that's what these birds are seeing and in a lot of cases, that's what pulls them down as these lights can mess with their navigation systems.”

A red-breasted nuthatch with a glowing city grid. // Julya Hajnoczky

Education and awareness

Hajnoczky hopes her photography educates people so birds can have a safer life in the city.

“I think a lot of people just don't necessarily know that it’s a problem,” she says, adding it’s been rewarding to have a role in CUSRT’s work.

Johnson agrees that most people likely don’t know the stats, which suggest an estimated 25 million birds die from window strikes across Canada every year.

Bird-friendly window guidelines tend to be voluntary, Johnson says, and she suspects there simply isn’t enough awareness of the impact.

“We try really hard not to shame builders, architects, and such because I don't think anybody sets out to hurt birds. I think it’s just a lack of awareness,” she says.

There is currently a petition calling on the federal government to require bird-friendly designs in all new building construction. Signatures are being collected until April 3.

Bird-proof windows

For structures already built, Johnson hopes that marking glass becomes normalized and that more buildings will reduce the number of lights on at night—which attracts birds into the downtown area.

And it isn’t just skyscrapers that are a problem. Johnson says medium-sized buildings and even houses pose just as big of a threat for bird strikes.

With spring just around the corner and many homeowners starting to prep their gardens—which are welcoming habitats for birds and other creatures—Johnson is urging people to bird-proof their windows first.

“Mark your windows. It’s not ugly, it’s just different,” Johnson says, adding there are many products and creative options available.

“It is fully within our own control to make an immediate difference. It's within our own control to mark the windows in our home.”

An example of bird-friendly window markings. // CUSRT Facebook

Positive ripple effect

Johnson says bird-proofing windows can have a positive ripple effect by inspiring neighbours to do the same.

She encourages people to speak up and mention it to building owners and retail managers as well.

Until bird-friendly windows become the norm, Johnson and her team of about 20 volunteers will continue their Sunday morning ritual of recording window strikes, which admittedly isn’t an easy task.

“It is difficult, but on the other hand, I'm really glad that we're there to bear witness to it and hopefully educate people on the situation to eventually have more people mark their windows and make some changes,” Johnson says.

If anyone is interested in joining CUSRT’s team of volunteers, virtual orientations are taking place on March 22 and 29. Details will be posted on the CUSRT Facebook page.

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