Birds bludgeoned by buildings; criminal case dismissed

After a prosecution began, developers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars preventing birds from colliding into Consilium Place in Toronto. Courtesy / CBRE

By John Upton

Despite inadvertently killing hundreds of birds that collide with their high-rise buildings every year, developers were acquitted last week by a Canadian judge of alleged environmental crimes.

The landmark case against Menkes Developments highlighted the cruel effects that reflective skyscrapers have on birds. Birds can mistake the windows for stretches of uninterrupted skyscape and fly blithely into them, with often fatal consequences.

The problem is vast and widespread. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that 100 million to 1 billion birds are killed by flying into buildings every year in the United States alone. (By comparison, the same agency estimates that cats kill 40 million birds yearly in the U.S. and that nearly 200 million are killed by electrocution.)

In response, some cities, such as San Francisco, require developers to protect birds by making their windows easier to see with avian eyes. This can be done by etching or frosting the glass, painting the windows with UV patterns that are more easily spotted by birds or by building architectural features across them.

Canada warblers are vulnerable to dying during collisions with windows. / Flickr: Jeremy Meyer

Similar laws apply in Toronto, home to Menkes Developments’ Consilium Place, which was at the heart of the recent case. But the laws there only apply to new construction.

In dismissing the criminal charges, which were brought by attorneys for bird activists, a judge ruled that developer could not be held responsible for the deadly reflection of sunlight — and that it made no effort to harm birds.

The outcome was not a total loss for bird populations or bird lovers. In response to the lawsuit, the office complex in 2011 was coated with film in a successful bid to reduce the number of birds that unwittingly fly into it.

“The number of collisions is dramatically down,” Ecojustice lawyer Albert Koehl told The Star newspaper, “so there are obviously solutions that do work.”