Birds and their safety during COVID-19

A rose-breasted grosbeak that ran into a window this year

By Amanda Dookie
and Anouk Hoedeman

The pandemic has changed the way we go about our daily lives, but has it changed how wildlife go about theirs? With fewer people around, less traffic and less noise, foxes, coyotes and other wild animals have been venturing into places they might not otherwise go. But most birds have just been going about their business – migrating, nesting, raising babies and foraging as they always have. With kids out of school and so many people working from home because of COVID-19, there are new opportunities to hear, see and appreciate the birds in our own backyards.

What better time to raise awareness of the challenges birds face and the ways we can help them? In May, Safe Wings Ottawa released the Ottawa Bird Strategy, a document that explores the ecological, economic and social benefits of birds, and describes how we can all do our part to make our city a place where birds can thrive. It was developed by Safe Wings in partnership with Nature Canada, Birds Canada, the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre and the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club.

Intended as a guiding document for local decision-makers, developers, community groups and residents, the Ottawa Bird Strategy explains the importance of birds, identifies best practices for addressing major threats and shows ways to integrate and benefit from bird conservation. It includes recommendations for landscape and building guidelines; a cat strategy; arts, awareness and education; economic development and tourism. Discover it for yourself at safewings.ca/OBS.

Safe Wings is dedicated to reducing bird deaths from window collisions through research, prevention and rescue. It is pleased that some recommendations are already being acted on. For example, the City of Ottawa and the National Capital Commission both have bird-friendly building-design guidelines, and a growing number of building owners – including homeowners – are following our advice to make their windows safer.

There’s much more we can do, which is why our volunteers continue to rescue birds and collect data during this pandemic – monitoring buildings is a good way to get some fresh air and exercise while physically distancing. Curious if COVID-19 measures might have an impact on collisions, we decided to compare statistics from 2019 and 2020 for the period of March 12 to May 21.

Last year, we documented 1,091 bird-window collisions involving 86 species. This year, we documented 713 collisions (numbers may not be final) by 67 different species. That’s a 35 per cent decrease.

But does this mean fewer birds are colliding with windows? Unfortunately, no. While empty offices can mean less light pollution (a collision risk factor), there may be other explanations for the lower reported numbers this year.

There may have been fewer birds in the area because annual migration patterns vary due to factors like temperatures, prevalent winds and fluctuation in bird populations. For example, a cold spring, like this one, delays migration so birds may make fewer stops, bypassing Ottawa in their haste to reach their breeding grounds.

Reduced monitoring might also be a factor in the reported decline in collisions. Because of pandemic restrictions, we could not train new volunteers, and many experienced volunteers who normally monitor their place of work or study as well as buildings nearby are now stuck at home.

With most businesses and offices closed, there are fewer pedestrians, smokers, groundskeepers and other “incidental” volunteers to notice and report injured and dead birds. We received 157 third-party collision reports this spring compared to 203 last year.

Another noticeable change is the more aggressive behaviour of predators and scavengers such as crows and gulls. They watch buildings for dead and injured birds, much like we do, but they are more numerous and faster. Pre-pandemic, there were more pedestrians who might block the bird’s-eye view of an easy meal on the sidewalk; they might also rescue injured birds and remove dead ones. Scavengers may now be swooping up more collision victims before they can be counted.

A yellow warbler that survived its collision with glass thanks to Safe Wings Ottawa volunteers   Photos: Anouk Hoedeman

We expected more reports of bird collisions at home, where people are spending more time, because an estimated 44 per cent of collisions occur at residences, but that hasn’t been the case. Still, we have noticed more people trying to prevent collisions by applying Feather Friendly dots or taking other measures. (See safewings.ca/homes for our recommendations.)

Now is a great time to monitor buildings near you for bird collisions, to contact elected officials about the importance of bird-friendly design, to submit comments on development applications and to make your own windows safer for birds.

Amanda Dookie and Anouk Hoedeman are members of Safe Wings Ottawa, a bird rescue group.

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