Birds: With a little help from their friends
It’s not easy being a bird. Habitat loss, window collisions, cats, and the climate crisis are taking a terrible cumulative toll: Over the past 50 years bird populations in Canada and the U.S. have declined by over three billion – that’s close to a third of all birds, gone.
Birds can use all the friends they can get, and they won’t find better than the Fleming Bird Conservation Committee (FBCC).
The committee, which operates under the auspices of the Frost Student Association (FSA) and is chaired by FSA President and Conservation Biology student Natasha Hirt, has an impressive roster. There are two other students: Sarah Jeffries (an Ecosystem Management student) and Julia Marshall (a Fish & Wildlife student, veterinary technician, and naturalist with a passion for birds so strong she has a life-sized tattoo of a belted kingfisher).
Three Fleming staff complete the roster: Braden Evans (Coordinator of Fleming’s Conservation Biology program), Thom Luloff (another professor in the program and director of the Kawartha Wildlife Centre), and Zachary Steele (a Fleming grad, college instructor, falconer, and operator of Kawartha Bird Control, a bird control and conservation company).
Fleming support for birds isn’t surprising. Steele points out, “As a school of environmental and natural resource sciences Frost should be leading the way in conservation,” and youth pushing for environmental action is a heartening but now familiar story.
What is a little surprising – and worth exploring – is the committee’s ambitious goal: transforming Frost Campus into Canada’s first-ever bird-friendly college campus.
There are two separate designations that align with their efforts. Luloff explains that there’s one specific for post-secondary campuses from FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) which so far has a couple of universities designated as bird-safe, and a broader certification which is awarded by Nature Canada to the municipality. So far 15 Canadian Cities have been certified as bird-friendly. The certifications for these designations are rigorous, and fall into three areas: habitat protection, restoration, and climate resiliency; reducing human-related threats to birds; and community outreach/education.
So, in their first year, what progress has the committee made?
High marks here. “Definitely a fantastic area for birds,” says Marshall. “There’s lots of diversity.”
To see for yourself try this: From behind the main building follow the Kawartha TransCanada Trail eastward as it winds through the 159-acre campus, branch off onto the boardwalk or pathway as you approach the Scugog River, loop back by following the southern campus boundary and turn north past the community garden. You’ll encounter cedar swamp, ash swamp, hardwood and coniferous forest, ponds, and meadows.
Along the way you’ll also see dozens of bluebird boxes in the meadows and wood duck-nesting boxes in the wetlands. You may notice the ponds are “constructed” wetlands, and many trees have been planted as part of an evolving arboretum.
The diversity of habitats and welcoming additions means a diversity of birds, no fewer than 171 species at one time or another according to Ebird, a free app developed by Cornell University and used by birders to track sightings.
Some species are familiar, some less so. All are marvels in one way or another. (Just two examples: chickadees can recall locations of hundreds of seed caches; bobolinks — yellow-naped blackbirds with a burbling R2D2 call – each year make a 20,000 km round-trip migration from their Fleming nesting spots).
Many species pass through during spring and fall migrations, but there are many to see at any time of year. Over the next few months, you can count on nuthatches, chickadees, and woodpeckers; if there’s a cone shortage in the north there will be an “irruption” (influx) of winter finches attracted to the campus’s conifers (especially the spruce).
Reducing Human-Related Threats
“The College spends a lot of time creating good habitat for species at risk,” Luloff points out, “But we haven’t protected birds from windows.”
It’s estimated that over 25 million birds die from window collisions each year in Canada alone, so that’s a significant oversight.
The collisions, Luloff explains, result from the way birds see: “With their specialized eyes and extra cone-receptors to detect different wavelengths, they experience light and light refraction differently. Windows are mirrors to them and reflect the habitat or landscape behind them.”
He goes on to say, “Because birds have hollow bones, collisions often result in death even for the birds that seem to shake it off and fly away, as they succumb from internal trauma and brain damage. Prevention of collisions is the key to minimizing bird mortality.”
Addressing the problem has been a priority for the FBCC this year.
The familiar silhouettes of birds of prey applied to windows aren’t effective because they don’t cover enough of the reflective surface. The solution is treating the entire window surface.
The committee decided to focus on windows in the Auk’s Lodge Student Centre, a building owned and run by the student association. The student association is paying for the project.
Happily, committee-member Steele is a licensed installer for window markers supplied by a Canadian Company, Feather Friendly. He identified windows to treat first – windows more likely to be collided with, and those in high traffic areas, so people would be made aware of the innovation – and applied the pre-spaced vinyl dots in a 2” X 2” grid. The treated windows have an aesthetically pleasing, subtle polka-dot appearance, and claim to reduce bird mortality by 98 per cent without obstructing people’s view.
The plan is to treat the remaining Auk’s Lodge windows next spring. The hope is to extend this to all Frost campus buildings, and perhaps add Haliburton and Peterborough campuses as well.
In the meantime, research projects are being carried out to answer questions about bird collisions. Many deaths go unnoticed because scavengers clean up the remains. Which scavengers and how quickly does the scavenging happen?
To answer those particular questions, trail cameras have been set up around the main building and dead robins (donated for educational purposes) have been secured in monitored positions. Conservation biology students are collecting the data and analyzing the results.
Community Outreach/ Education
Solid marks in this final category, too, for Fleming.
Recently Auk’s Lodge was the site of Fleming’s second annual Frost Bird Conservation Day, an event open to all, and months in preparation. The purpose was to celebrate the installation of the bird-safe window technology and educate students and the community about birds.
The event included a presentation from the coordinator of the Ontario Forest Birds at Risk program (a Fleming grad), a series of increasingly challenging bird trivia contests, and a live bird meet and greet with Kawartha Bird Control (Steele brought along his red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, and gyr/peregrine falcon).
A certificate and prizes were awarded – the certificate to recognize “incredible action to prevent avian species loss from glass collisions“ — and the prizes going to the talented students whose entries won a bird photo contest sponsored by the committee. (Both photos accompanying this article were winning entries.)
Also part of the event were displays prepared by representatives of like-minded organizations, including Kawartha Conservation, Kawartha Field Naturalists, Kawartha Wildlife Centre, and the Fatal Light Awareness Program ( FLAP Canada).
Reaching out to include community organizations was a deliberate measure and, as Braden Evans notes, the committee is hoping to go further and engage with the municipality and offer a hand in following the Fleming example and earning Lindsay or even City of Kawartha Lakes Bird-Friendly designation.
And why not us? Nearby Peterborough is one of the 15 Canadian Bird Friendly cities – in June, their city council gave final approval for certification.
Bringing the municipality along for the bird-friendly journey would be a wonderful achievement for the committee and a significant help to birds, who, of course – just to repeat – need all the friends they can get.