by Alan Li
Michael Mesure is the Executive Director of the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) Canada, a registered Canadian charity. For decades, Michael has been advocating for the protection of birds. He kindly took time out from his hectic schedule to chat with LUNA.
Before FLAP Canada, what was your background?
Starting back in 1989, I owned and operated an art gallery in Thornhill. I represented local artists, including myself, and then the economy tanked and the first thing to suffer was the arts. After a year of struggling, I had to close the business. A year after that, I tried again in the village of Erin, where my sister and me opened an art gallery and antique shop together.
It was back in 1989 when a close friend of mine, who knew I had a fascination with birds, told me about hearing of birds dying in collisions with Toronto’s lit towers. The next day I drove to Toronto before daybreak to see if this was actually happening, and sure enough, birds were everywhere. For the next three or four years, while trying to run the businesses, I was getting up bright and early to head into Toronto’s financial district to search for birds. One thing led to another, and I ended up having to make a decision between a career as a gallery owner or pursuing FLAP, because I was getting sick trying to do both.
In the end, I couldn’t walk away from this issue, and here I am today.
You helped co-found FLAP Canada back in 1993, the first initiative of its kind; can you share some memories from that first year? I imagine it must have been challenging to get this project off the ground.
Funny enough, starting as a group was surprisingly easy. Our core group was made up of eight people (half are still with FLAP to this day), and we were so keen, so fresh, and just fascinated to learn about this issue, that getting together and having meetings was something we all looked forward to - there was so much energy! We weren’t really clear how to tackle the problem; we kept doing our thing by picking up birds and trying to introduce ourselves to building owners. On occasion, we’d do a display in a lobby, but we were figuring it out day by day, month by month, and year by year. Even today we’re still learning.
The energy we started with was awesome, and I think it’s part of our longevity. If you don’t have that commitment and energy with you, it would be very hard to maintain a project like this. We were very fortunate to have that in the early days and FLAP’s commitment and energy has only grown stronger each and every year.
How important are Toronto’s ravines for migratory bird species?
Ravines are crucial. This is the challenge we face in a lush city with ravines that provide ideal nesting habitat and stopover areas during migration. In some cases, birds use the ravines for navigating to and from the lake. But let’s face it, these green corridors are shrinking, and that means less opportunity for these birds. One of the reasons why Toronto has a challenge in the way of bird collisions, is not only do we have all these green spaces, but surrounding and sometimes within these spaces are human built structures that the birds end up colliding with. In what we’re trying to do through education, the more green space the better. But let’s make our presence less of a threat to them by making glass bird friendly, whether from a residential or commercial perspective.
With the ravines surrounded by development, what steps can a home or business owner take to ensure their building is bird friendly?
If you’re a homeowner who’s experiencing bird collisions, chances are you have a pretty good idea which windows are presenting the greatest threat. But sometimes that can be a surprise to people. The reason I say that is because we recently developed an app that enables people to assess the windows on each side of a building, such as a home, and provide them with a threat rating. What we recommend is addressing the facades that are deemed a high risk or lethal threat. Many times people will say that that makes perfect sense because those are the windows where they hear birds thumping into the glass, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
The reason FLAP is pushing homeowners, more often than not, is because the bulk of human-built structures that back onto the ravines are residential homes. Only the homeowner has control for making their homes safe for birds.
While the app helps, bird feeder location is also very important. People tend to locate them in the worst possible spots. Research has demonstrated time and time again that you need to put those feeders either right up against the window (1.5 feet or less), or keep them as far back in the yard as you possibly can.
For commercial, institutional and industrial buildings, we can also provide a thorough on-site assessment for a nominal fee. While a bird can collide with any side of a building that has glass, we’ve noticed patterns over the years through our data collecting. The majority of collisions tend to happen on specific sides of a structure. So, rather than a building owner having to treat their entire building with bird collision deterrent markers, we can shrink it down to focus on the hot spots making it far more affordable and therefore attractive for building owners.
To learn more about FLAP’s Android app (iOS version currently in development):
To learn how to make your windows bird friendly:
FLAP Canada reached a twenty-five year milestone last year and I’m sure there have been lots of ups and downs along the way. What achievements are you most proud of?
What always stands out for me is that before we were founded, this was an issue people knew about but either nobody recognized it as a serious problem, or they didn’t know what to do about it. It took almost fifteen years - we were initially perceived as a bunch of crazy people running around with nets to catch butterflies in the middle of the night - to reach a point where we’re a respected organization, because we’ve clearly demonstrated that this is a leading conservation concern. It’s now considered the second leading cause of bird deaths across the continent. That was a huge hurdle to get over. Once we got over that hurdle, people were willing to listen more. We also recognized that in order to assure that the bird-building collision issue was being addressed properly, legislation needed to be put in place with a united standard that defined how to effectively mitigate the problem.
FLAP was instrumental in influencing:
2010 - Toronto’s Green Standards
2013 - Introduced Provincial and Federal Law (Environmental Protection Act – daylight as a contaminant)
2019 Canadian Standards Association Technical Committee member (Bird- Friendly Building Design Standard)
When the Canadian Standards Association writes the standards for new construction, the building code gets curious and they look into it. Typically they adopt the standards, and once that happens, it’s pretty much mandatory, which makes it easier for the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks to enforce the law.
We hear a lot of bad news in the world - what gives you hope?
There’s no doubt we’re in a downward spiral, but I look at what we do as buying extra time. And while we try to buy extra time, we might find ourselves being able to reverse some trends once we begin to embrace what’s necessary to do it.
For example, here in the city we have the Toronto Green Standard. Under this standard, all new mid-rise to high-rise buildings in the city have to meet a requirement for bird collision mitigation. Since this requirement was introduced in 2010, we’re seeing incredible examples of new buildings designed with birds in mind. It all sounds good, but that’s just a fraction of the buildings out there that kill birds; what needs to change is the massive number of existing buildings that were built before these standards came to pass. That is a much bigger animal to tackle. However, with the Toronto Green Standard now in place, it’s buying us time necessary to influence change for all existing buildings.
All we can do is keep trying and keep pushing; we get little victories along the way and that’s what keeps us motivated. We slowly start to recognize that people are listening and willing to take action. We can only hope that this buys us enough time so that the bigger change that needs to take place, enforced legislation, will step in to really help reverse things.
You have to be persistent, you have to be patient, and you have to persevere. And you have to be prepared to take criticism One of the more common criticisms we hear are:
“Why the heck aren’t you laying dead bird bodies at the steps of City Hall?”
“Why aren’t you breaking down doors and shaming corporations for all the dead birds?”
I’m a firm believer that if you do that, you turn people off, and you end up having to make up for lost ground. I much prefer to develop strong partnerships with people and gain their trust. Some of the greatest changes we’ve witnessed through our twenty-five plus years have come from building strong relationships.
What’s next for FLAP?
I touched on it earlier – it’s to do with all the standards that are coming into effect for new construction. We need to broaden that to all existing buildings right across the country, and even right across the world if we can.
We’re launching our second year of the Global Bird Rescue event (https://birdsafe.ca/gbr ), where we’re trying to engage people from around the world to dedicate one week to looking for injured birds in their communities, and dropping that information into our Global Bird Collision Mapper (https://birdmapper.org/app/). This is a citizen science database that captures any bird collision record from anywhere in the world.
Citizen science has become a sought-after activity in research and government communities because there’s power in numbers. The more people who contribute the better, but the beauty of the mapper is that it also gives people who aren’t necessarily interested in fully dedicating themselves to a cause a sense that they too have contributed to a solution.
We’re going to put a lot of energy into building this database so we can then reach out to municipalities and jurisdictions in those regions where we see buildings that have documented high collision rates. Our goal is to educate the building owners and operators, and assist them on how best to reduce these collisions.
Overall, we’re continuing to build upon the foundation we’ve laid. There is also a tremendous amount of momentum with now over sixty FLAP-like initiatives across North America. These initiatives are appearing because people have heard of our work and decide to monitor buildings in their communities where - lo and behold- they’re finding birds that are also colliding.
Thank you so much for your time and for taking part in this interview. From someone who also cares about birds, thank goodness you decided all those years ago to get out of the art gallery business!
Michael Mesure is one of the featured presenters at the 2019 Ravine Symposium at Toronto Botanical Garden. Tickets are on sale now for the event.
Please follow this link to register for the Ravine Symposium:
To learn more about FLAP Canada and how you can get involved, please visit their websites or join the conversation on social media.