Image for A soaring city reaps a terrible toll

*Pic: Digital image of Fragrance Group’s proposed hotel at 28-30 Davey St, Hobart: Tall buildings, particularly those which are brightly lit at night, can prove to be particularly dangerous to birdlife. 

Pic TCT: Image from HERE, where you can sign a PETITION ...

*Pic: An anonymous architect’s portrayal of the scale of the hotel ...

First published July 31

For millions of years birds have flown incredible journeys, navigating by the stars and the earth’s magnetic field. They survive epic flights that sometimes span the globe by using their wiles and wits to negotiate obstacles like inclement weather or mountains or oceans standing in their way.

Migratory skills honed through evolution from the time of the dinosaurs, however, have not prepared them from an obstacle that has arisen in more recent times. This is the skyscraper and, more specifically, the bright lights that beam into the sky from windows at night.

The peril that high-rise buildings pose to birds is a relatively recent phenomenon – relative in an evolutionary timescale that pre-dates the human species –  but it is increasingly being documented in the world’s major cities that span migration routes.

New York, Toronto and London have their bands of wildlife carers who venture onto the mean city streets at night to rescue birds colliding with high-rise buildings, and smaller cities planning to join the big league of skyscraper city-scapes are also looking at the threat these structures can pose to the creatures of the wild.

In the United States alone, researchers estimate bird casualties resulting from building strikes could run into the hundreds of millions each year.

With plans being mooted to construct the first ultra-high buildings in Hobart, the impact these buildings might have on the cityscape, blotting out sunlight and obscuring the view of the magnificent kunanyi/Mt Wellington, has been at the centre of the controversy over them. But the issue of mortality among not just birds but other flying creatures like bats is bound sooner or later to enter the frame.

I was unaware of this threat to wildlife until I went to live in New York in the early 1980s. The birdwatchers I joined by day in Central Park were at night during the peak migration periods of late-spring and late-autumn either migrating to downtown Manhattan themselves to rescue birds, or mounting protests outside high-rise buildings, whose owners were refusing to turn off the lights at night.

To my shame I never joined them, preferring to sip bourbon after sunset in smoky piano bars, and after I left New York skyscrapers and birds were never issues that seemed to go together. That was a until the controversy emerged earlier this year over proposals by the Singapore-based Fragrance Group to build two ultra-high hotels – one 120 metres high and the other, 83 metres – in central Hobart.

By coincidence, my attention was drawn to the Australian edition of New Scientist magazine which in its June 10 issue carried an article on the staggering toll resulting from birds flying into high-rise buildings in the United States.

The article begins by describing events at a single building in Chicago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters there, and the sheer horror of an FBI agent, Julia Meredith, when one day she found the entrance to the skyscraper littered with the bodies of Blackburnian warblers, songbirds on their way from their wintering grounds in Central America to breeding areas in Canada. The article also mentioned a building in Galveston, Texas, which killed 395 birds in one strike.

At the time of seeing the New Scientist article, I was reading a book by a Canadian writer, Kyo Maclear, who had discovered the joys of birdwatching in Toronto.

In her work Birds Art Life and Death, she mentions the Fatal Light Awareness Program, or FLAP, in which conservationists work with building owners to reduce the threat that light and glass pose to migrating birds.

As the New Scientist reports, the sky is now emerging as an “environment” in its own right. And it adds that while efforts to protect areas on land and in water have accelerated since the 1970s, the sky has been almost entirely ignored.

Now a new wave of conservationists is seeking to reclaim the air for its inhabitants, advocating protected areas that extend into the sky and building design which minimises bird deaths.

In this regard Agent Meredith eventually secured an FBI-approved plan to net the Chicago building during migration time. It temporarily restricted views across the city but Agent Meredith said it was a price worth paying.

Birds striking high-rise buildings in Hobart, as far as I can ascertain, is a new issue simply because the city does not have a history of such buildings. But mortality involving private homes has long been a problem, with building codes taking into account the threat windows and their angle pose to a critically endangered species, the swift parrot. The migratory parrot is prone to window strike because of its fast, low flight through the suburbs on its return from wintering grounds on the mainland, before it heads out to the blue-gum forests of the east and south-east coast to breed.

High-rise buildings in Hobart, though, will never result in the same level of bird mortality found in American and European cities simply because the numbers of migratory birds and the scale of their migration is not the same.

In Hobart we do not have millions of birds moving from one vast continent to another (North-South America, or Europe-Africa), myriad species crossing cities, their calls ringing out in the night.

There are only about 20 mainland migratory species travelling the Hobart area which might be prone to colliding with buildings. These are counted in their thousands rather than millions, but on a smaller scale any high-rise building with lights ablaze will still pose a danger to those that travel by night.

If ultra-high buildings start to rise from the city streets in future, bird-lovers’ eyes in spring and autumn will be cast increasingly downwards to the pavement instead of up into the skies. 

Don Knowler writes the On the Wing column in Tasweekend. A book he has written on kunanyi/Mt Wellington, The Shy Mountain, will be launched at the Hobart Bookshop on September 14.

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