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Ontario Environmental watchdog blames bird deaths on the province

An estimated one million birds die every year after colliding with glass buildings in downtown Toronto.

The body of a thrush lies on a Toronto sidewalk after colliding with a building downtown.

Courtesy FLAP Canada

The body of a thrush lies on a Toronto sidewalk after colliding with a building downtown.

The province’s unwillingness to enforce its own laws is leading to the death of thousands of migratory birds every year, says Ontario’s environmental watchdog.

In her annual report, Environmental Commissioner Ellen Schwartzel lambasts the provincial government for failing to protect birds from the threat posed by tall buildings in Toronto.

In 2013, the Ontario Court of Justice ruled reflected light responsible for bird deaths can be considered a “contaminant” in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act. Failure to bird-proof windows, for example, was therefore considered a provincial offence, says Albert Koehl, an environmental lawyer in Toronto who helped prosecute the case.     

“It’s now the law, but no one at the Ministry of the Environment is applying it,” Koehl said.

Instead, the ministry is proposing building owners be exempted from the laws and encouraged – rather than required – to implement bird-friendly measures.

In an email to Metro, an Environment Ministry spokesperson said enforcing the law would be unwieldy.

“Regulating this issue would mean that property owners of structures in Ontario that reflect light would need to apply for an environmental compliance approval. The ministry believes a better approach is to build on practical tools and practices building owners can use rather than taking a regulatory approach,” they said.

The move earned a sharp rebuke from Schwartzel.

“It appears that the ministry’s preferred approach is to ignore its regulatory responsibility and leave it up to property owners and managers to voluntarily follow guidelines and suggested strategies,” she wrote.

The City of Toronto mandated in 2010 that all new towers be built in accordance with bird-friendly guidelines. The move was applauded by bird advocates, but Michael Mesure, executive director of the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), said few – if any – older buildings have taken steps to comply with the law.

“The vast majority of birds are dying at existing buildings and unless there’s some kind of regulation put in place to address this, the change is not going to take place.”

“There’s no evidence in any of these cases that voluntary measures work,” echoed Koehl. 

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