Anouk Hoedeman has heard the sound about a half dozen times: that dull thud a bird makes when it collides with a window. It’s a small, muffled noise that makes her ache. She’s held a motionless sparrow in her hand, as weightless as a slice of bread, and watched as its eyes closed and the life left its body.
A writer and editor by occupation and an avid — though not fanatical — birder, Hoedeman is founder and co-ordinator of the Ottawa wing of FLAP Canada — the acronym for the awkward-sounding Fatal Light Awareness Program (one suspects the acronym came first, and the actual words later) — a Toronto-based organization dedicated to safeguarding migratory birds as they pass through urban areas, by means of education, research, rescue and rehabilitation.
And despite not being a morning person, Hoedeman — whose cellphone ringtone, incidentally, is the song of a northern flicker — is up and out of her Glebe home before dawn each day, the large, sturdy panniers on her bicycle loaded with dollar store nets, plastic sandwich bags, wooden cages and other tools of the bird rescue and recovery trade.
A laminated card that reads Bird Rescue and shows a silhouetted bird lying on its back is affixed to the bike’s handlebar bag with a pair of safety pins; the sign, she says, is really intended simply to defuse the glares she would otherwise suffer for riding her bike on sidewalks and near building entranceways, as opposed to any sort of grand announcement of the good she’s doing.
She starts at 200 Kent St. — the Centennial Towers — a glass-and-steel downtown office tower that houses, among other tenants, the Tax Court of Canada, and circles the building’s perimeter in search of dead or injured woodpeckers, thrushes, kingfishers or whatever else might be passing through. A security guard is out front on this particular morning, sweeping up cigarette butts and other, mostly human, detritus, and he and Hoedeman chat briefly. No, nothing today, he says. She knows numerous such building commissionaires, security guards, managers and maintenance staff, and many of them gladly retrieve and save the feathered cadavers they find, parcelling the remains in specially printed paper bags she’s provided.
Block by block, she wends her way through the downtown core in search of birds, hopefully to take to the Wild Bird Care Centre on Moodie Drive for care and eventual release, but more likely to catalogue, tag, bag and store in her freezer at home.
Over the course of two migratory seasons this year, she and other volunteers with FLAP Ottawa have rescued or retrieved about 450 birds from more than 60 species, including one Barred Owl. It’s a far cry from the 100 million to one billion birds that FLAP estimates die in this manner each year in North America, but more than enough considering that she and like-minded colleague Cynthia Paquin are the only ones among FLAP Ottawa’s handful or two of volunteer patrollers who go out every day, the others confining their urban birding to, at most, once or twice a week. (Paquin’s boyfriend is none-too-enamoured with the beaked birds in the freezer, so she’s taken to storing them in otherwise empty frozen vegan waffle boxes, assured he will never open one.)
Hoedeman’s impetus for starting FLAP’s Ottawa chapter was the much-publicized death of numerous waxwings a year and a half ago as a flock pelted the glassed enclosure connecting the old and new portions of City Hall. Thinking that someone should be doing something about the problem, she phoned the Wild Bird Care Centre and FLAP in Toronto, only to discover that no one here was, and so she took it upon herself.
“I believe that if you feel strongly that somebody ought to do something about a problem,” she says, “then you should consider whether you might be the person to do something about it. And this is something I really care about. It’s an issue that doesn’t get enough attention; that not enough people are aware of. I just find it horrifying that this many birds die colliding with buildings.”
She put a notice on Facebook to gauge interest, received about a dozen positive replies, and, with the support of Nature Canada and Ottawa Field Naturalists, set her alarm clock and formed FLAP Ottawa.
She stores the birds partly for sheer documentation, but also for those who might one day want to use them in studying migration patterns and other things. Already, she said, ornithologists at Carleton University have expressed an interest.
Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, but in a study Environment Canada estimated a year ago that buildings account for 22.5 million avian deaths each year in this country, only slightly fewer than the 25.6 million claimed by power lines — but both a long way behind Canada’s insidious cat population, which accounts for 196 million annual bird kills.
Of the buildings, glass and mirrored ones are the worst — Hoedeman laughs that she has become quite a fan of the heavy plain concrete of brutalist architecture.
Some glass buildings simply blend into the sky. Others can temporarily blind birds with their reflections. Migratory birds also don’t recognize that the tree they saw in a mirrored building was merely a reflection of the one they were sitting in just moments ago.
They don’t understand that the beautifully attractive and verdant atrium in the Sun Life building on O’Connor Street is an illusory forest surrounding by an impenetrable and violent force field, or that the humans magically walking metres above the ground between the National Gallery of Canada and its curatorial wing are similarly protected by panes of a potentially bone-crunching, head trauma-inducing, yet invisible, substance. In short: country birds simply don’t get glass.
Hoedeman wants to change that — not that birds have to get smarter, but that we do. Buildings’ windows can easily be retrofitted with screens of such bird-friendly material as CollidEscape, an energy-efficient and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) — tested film that birds can see, yet which people can see through.
Additionally, she’d like to see Ottawa City Council implement bird-friendly design guidelines for new buildings, similar to those that have been adopted in such cities as Toronto, Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
In the meantime, she’ll be up before dawn every day and spending between three and five morning hours helping the injured and documenting the dead. It feels, she says, like a calling.
“It feels like the right things for me to be doing. You can go through life with a job where you don’t feel like you’re making any great contribution to the world, but I find this is the first thing I’ve done where I really feel it’s contributing to a better world. It’s something that’s concretely, demonstrably useful.”
For more information or to reach FLAP Ottawa, visit www.flap.org/ottawa.php or call 613-216-8999.
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