That's a wrap: How a Toronto technology is helping birds fly more safely
Ten years ago, Bob Alsip turned his attention to how birds see things.
Since its founding 35 years ago, Alsip's Etobicoke-based company, Convenience Group
, has provided a variety of films for buildings. Films for tinting glass and improving energy efficiency. Films for adding graphic elements to buildings. Films for privacy and films to protect buildings from blasting and natural disasters. But perhaps the toughest challenge of all has been to produce films that save the lives of birds.
"We were looking to create something that birds will see that owners will accept," says Alsip, president of Convenience Group and its Feather Friendly Technology
division. "It has to be economical and it has to work."
About five years ago, after four iterations, the company came up with a product that seemed to do the job: a film-based solution with one of three different dot patterns that make glass buildings more visible to birds, allow 90 per cent clear viewing from inside buildings and don't offend human aesthetic sensibilities. The timing has been ideal. The development of the product has coincided with a surge of queries from property owners and property managers who want to make their buildings more bird-friendly.
"There's more interest than there ever was," says Alsip. "It's usually driven by tenants who see the birds hitting the windows and they're not happy about it."
It's no coincidence that the leading solution for bird-building collisions has emerged out of a city that has spearheaded concern about the issue. Toronto is located in a flyway for all kinds of birds; it's estimated that more than 950,000 of the city's registered buildings could potentially kill more than nine-million birds each year. That can add up to one in 10 birds who mistake reflective glass as blue sky or shelter. Those grim statistics led to the 1993 founding of the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP
), which has worked with Feather Friendly Technologies to come up with a way to retrofit buildings. While nighttime collisions are usually caused by light shining on or from buildings, daytime collisions tend to happen on the third and fourth storeys of buildings—the height of trees—when birds are doing their thing and mistake the glass reflections for the landscape ahead.
"There are about 20 buildings in the city that are much worse than others," says Alsip. "They're usually close to waterways, valleys."
In 2009, Toronto became the first city to mandate bird-friendly buildings as part of its Toronto Green Standard
for new construction. For new buildings, glass must be treated with a density pattern or some kind of system to mute the reflection of the glass. New buildings are also required to reduce nighttime glare and light trespass, which throw birds off course. Although these regulations don't apply to older buildings, they've raised awareness of the issue, as have a couple of court cases. So owners of existing properties are trying to step up to the plate and deal with the problem.
"Building owners are realizing this issue isn't going to go away," says Michael Mesure, executive director of FLAP. Although Alsip preferred not to talk about specific costs—there are many factors to consider in applying a feather-friendly film to a building—Mesure says bird-friendly measures can cost as little as $6-$8 per square foot.
"The reason the corporate world hasn't moved is they felt it might interfere with the architectural integrity of the building, but the beauty of these new technologies is that they don't interfere with the beauty of the building," says Mesure.
Although the GTA remains cutting edge on the problem—last year the town of Markham took steps to make one of its municipal buildings and its civic centre more bird-friendly—Alsip says awareness has been spreading. He's had inquiries from across Canada and the US, and orders from as far away as Spain.
"The Toronto guidelines have been quoted in a number of city and state legislatures," says Alsip. "I think the there's a standard that's being established."