Why birds migrate through cities — and how you can help them succeed


Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Why birds migrate through cities — and how you can help them succeed
  • The stone cold truth: Visualizing the loss of Arctic sea ice
  • The physical and emotional toll of far-off wildfires
  • Task force calls on Ottawa to spend billions on ‘green recovery’

Why birds migrate through cities — and how you can help them succeed

(Jayne Gulbrand/Shutterstock)

It’s fall migration time, which means thousands of bird species from warblers to thrushes to shorebirds are on their way from their breeding grounds in Canada to their winter homes in the U.S., Mexico and Central and South America.

A sizable proportion of them are swooping and fluttering through North America’s biggest cities. That includes an estimated 50 million passing by Toronto, according to Andrés Jiménez Monge, co-ordinator of the urban program for the conservation group Birds Canada.

Why do they come through big cities?

The main reason is that birds travel along a series of migration paths or flyways. They navigate along lakes, rivers and coastlines with lots of resources such as food — some of the same features that made these areas attractive for human settlement and led them to become some of the country’s biggest cities.

Toronto is at the intersection of two important flyways, Jiménez Monge said.

Another reason many birds fly through cities is that they migrate at night and navigate by the stars, which is why they are attracted to city lights. But cities can be full of dangers for birds.

“It’s good that so many people are able to enjoy the birds that fly through here,” Jiménez Monge said. “It’s good that we can be stewards of these flyways. It’s bad in the sense that we are not doing that.”

According to FLAP Canada, which aims to protect birds from collisions with human-built structures, 25 million birds fatally collide with windows in Canada each year. It’s the second-leading human-related cause of death for birds (after cats).

Cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary have adopted bird-friendly urban design guidelines so developers can help reduce hazards such as window reflections and light pollution.

There are also things individual residents can do, Jiménez Monge says. Here are a few:

Get to know your birds. Knowing which birds are there and what they need can help you to support them. Birds Canada offers online courses, and identification apps are also available. You can also set up a feeder and see what birds show up. Jiménez Monge says the best way to learn is to go out with an experienced birder. Events at local bird festivals are a good place to start.

Make your windows bird-safe. If you live in a highrise, draw the blinds or turn off or reduce lighting at night during migration. During the day, use blinds, strings hanging from the tops of windows, or window treatments such as dots to prevent bird collisions. (FLAP Canada is currently running a contest with prizes for people who do this.)

Re-wild your yard. Reduce the size of your lawn and let part of the yard grow wild. Plant native plants. Create a brush pile to attract insects, which many birds eat. Avoid pesticides.

Keep cats indoors. This also protects felines from hazards such as predators and vehicles. 

Report bird sightings for science. Organizations like Birds Canada rely heavily on citizen science data from apps such as eBird and programs such as FeederWatch. “We need to know the status of birds — how they’re doing — in order to take the right measures to protect them,” Jiminez Monge says.

He encourages people across the country to enjoy migration time.

“We are realizing that cities are a fantastic place to watch the birds,” he said. But that comes with some responsibility. “If you want to be able to keep enjoying this natural spectacle… We need to take care of birds, we need to create cities that are a welcoming place for them.”

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

In last week’s issue, we shone a light on the carbon footprint of ridesharing companies. Keith Rasmussen said, “Thanks for reminding us that Uber and Lyft are huge contributors to city pollution. And can we please stop referring to companies like Uber and Lyft as rideSHARING. There is no sharing about it, they are no different than a limousine or taxi company in what they do.”

Responding to Emily Chung’s piece on organized cleanup initiatives, Catharine Ross wrote, “I am appalled that there still have to be special events planned for cleaning up people’s trash. This problem has to be addressed at the base level. Teach your children to never throw their garbage on the ground. Teach them respect for their habitat. Find a garbage barrel or take it home with you. Who among us doesn’t realize that it’s a bad thing? I can’t understand the mindset of just throwing your garbage any old place. Never have, never will. Come on, people! This is the only world we have!”

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The Big Picture: Arctic sea ice loss

Each year around this time, sea ice in the Arctic reaches its annual minimum, which is an opportunity to measure the longer-term trend of ice in the region. The Arctic helps regulate the climate of the entire planet, and the decreasing amount of September sea ice is a worrying sign of climate change. According to satellite data from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center in the U.S., the amount of September Arctic sea ice in 1979 was above seven million square kilometres; in September 2019, it was around 4.5 million. The numbers suggest the ice is declining at a rate of nearly 13 per cent per decade.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Is the climate crisis more likely to be solved through greater personal responsibility (read: more conscientious consumption) or by regulating the biggest polluting industries? In terms of the most impact, it’s undoubtedly the latter, and that requires voting for governments that care about such things. But this smart essay in the Atlantic suggests that by living more sustainably, individual people can actually begin to change broader opinions about the importance of the environment.

  • There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about species extinction, but a new study says that nearly 50 bird and mammal species have recently been saved.

  • Google has said it achieved carbon-neutrality in 2007, but the company recently announced that through the purchase of offsets, it has now erased its entire carbon footprint.

The physical and emotional toll of far-off wildfires

(Ben Nelms/CBC)

Raging wildfires in the western United States smothered parts of B.C. with some of the dirtiest air on the planet this week, turning blue skies grey and at times an orangey brown.

Smoke has also drifted into Alberta and even eastern Canada, making its way to the Atlantic.

Liana Zwick said the smoke blanketing her small community of Castlegar, B.C., has been tough to take over the past few days. Her husband, who has a lung condition, has been unable to leave the house for his usual exercise routines. 

Zwick said even for those with healthy respiratory systems, it is hard to be outside for any length of time. After adjusting to so many COVID-19 restrictions, she said reducing activities even further because of the smoke is hard to bear.

“The adjustments … play havoc with your mind, and it’s harder to stay upbeat,” she said. “I think it’s just that vicious circle: if it’s not your physical health, then the anxiety.”

For months, public health officials have been advising Canadians to get outside for their mental and physical health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, that advice has come up hard against the realities of climate change.

Michael Brauer, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, said smoke irritates the respiratory system, causing inflammation and breathing difficulties, which can lead to headaches, sore throat and coughing. 

For those most at risk, including the elderly or those with underlying health conditions, it can bring on chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and heart palpitations.

Brauer said we need to get used to the idea that our air will be increasingly dirty and smoky in the coming years, as the planet continues to warm. “I’m not a climate modeller, but it’s quite clear that it’s going to get worse,” he said.

Brauer said it’s up to individuals, institutions and communities to look for ways to prepare for smoky skies during summer and autumn. For institutions, that means putting in plans and protocols — including the opening of “clean air shelters,” such as the one Vancouver just opened for those who don’t have access to indoor spaces with good air quality. 

For individuals, it means managing health conditions properly, being prepared with medications before fire season begins and considering portable air cleaners, for those who have the means. 

Beyond the physical health toll of smoky air, there’s a psychological impact as well. Ashlee Cunsolo, dean of the School of Arctic and Sub-Arctic Studies at Memorial University, said environmental catastrophes provoke a spectrum of emotional responses, even when they’re experienced from a distance. 

“You might not be at the front lines of the wildfires and might not be in that acute emergency situation. But you certainly are still affected when you see the smoke,” she said.

The smoke, she said, is a reminder of other people’s suffering. “People talk about it as vicarious anxiety or anticipatory anxiety or concern,” Cunsolo said. “And I think it’s a function of human empathy.”

Cunsolo suggested it’s vital to develop emotional strategies to cope with environmental issues. Those might include talking with family and friends, getting more exercise, counselling or group therapy and doing things that make you feel like you’re contributing positively to the world. 

She said people should accept that the emotions they feel under oppressive and smoky skies are natural — and might even be helpful.

“The emotions that we feel in response to these things are opportunities or gifts that we’re given to examine why we’re feeling that way, and to examine what we value.” 

Rachel Sanders

Task force calls on Ottawa to spend billions on ‘green recovery’

(Dave Rae/CBC)

An independent task force made up of experts in financial and environmental policy is calling on Ottawa to spend $55 billion over five years on clean energy and measures to cope with climate change to kick-start a Canadian economy stalled by the global pandemic.

A large portion of that sum — $27.25 billion — should be spent on retrofitting existing buildings to make them more energy-efficient and safer from the effects of climate change, according to the final report of the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery, released this week.

The group said the investment would boost the country’s largest private sector industry by creating construction jobs, helping taxpayers cut their energy bills and also tackling the 13 per cent portion of Canada’s carbon emissions that comes from buildings.

“That’s where you get the most jobs with the least amount of public investment,” said Bruce Lourie, task force member and president of the Ivey Foundation, a Toronto-based organization that promotes sustainable development.

The task force came together in May, and its 14 members include some former top political advisers — including Gerald Butts, ex-principal secretary to the prime minister, as well as former advisers to B.C. Premier John Horgan and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

Its proposals also include new investments in clean energy, such as hydrogen, and increased production and promotion of zero-emission vehicles.

Lourie said many of the report’s ideas are “so straightforward” he can’t see why the federal government wouldn’t adopt them.

At a two-day Liberal cabinet retreat this week, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said that while Canadians are “looking to us” to build “resilience” against the impacts of climate change, the government’s “primary focus is on ensuring that we’re supporting Canadians through this pandemic.”

The task force is making the argument that restarting the economy and a green recovery are not mutually exclusive.

“In Canada, whenever people hear ‘green,’ they think it’s some marginal little thing that environmentalists talk about,” said Lourie. “But the reality is the world is moving to clean energy. The world is moving to electric vehicles and Canada is falling behind.

“In this country, we have to get over this divisiveness and the idea that somehow climate change is some airy-fairy idea out there, when really it’s core to our future competitiveness.”

The report also points out that other countries, notably in Europe, have already moved forward in announcing recovery plans with a green focus. 

France, for example, has promised to use a third of its $155 billion Cdn recovery package on “greening the economy” — and critics are lamenting that amount is not enough. The European Union has pledged the largest-ever sum to tackle climate change: a whopping $855 billion Cdn over seven years. 

Another task force member, longtime investment banker and sustainable finance expert Andy Chisholm — who the Liberal government appointed to a 2018  sustainable finance panel — told CBC News the Liberals have already signalled they will need to inject large amounts of stimulus cash into the economy. 

Canada needs measures that “put us on a path for job recovery that is more sustainable over time because it plays into where the world is going,” Chisholm said.

“If you’re going to spend an enormous amount of money on stimulus going forward, then you should be trying to solve future issues and build long-term competitiveness and sustainability into your economy, so that you have the greatest impact and longest-lasting impact, rather than simply trying to restore the situation to what it was a year ago, while the world is moving on.”

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday that while the ongoing fight against the pandemic remains the federal government’s top priority, any recovery plan will contain green elements.

“I also spoke about the absolute priority that we place on jobs and growth and green jobs are absolutely going to be a part of our recovery,” she said.

Salimah Shivji

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty