Bird Interrupted: The FLAP Layout at the ROM

Wednesday March 12, 2014

Warning: This post contains images of dead birds, which may be disturbing to some readers. On the other hand, that's kind of the point.

On Sunday night, I told Steve I was planning to go to the Royal Ontario Museum in the morning while he was at work. He asked if there was something special going on I wanted to see.

"I don't really want to see it," I said, "but it seems like a thing that should be seen."


Every year, volunteers from Toronto's Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) patrol the streets near tall buildings during the spring and fall migration seasons, looking for the hundreds of birds who will accidentally crash into the confusing walls of glass that reflect sky and trees in the daylight and shine with attractive electric lights in the night.

I say accidentally, but that's not really true. Accidents are unpreventable. Bird collisions can be greatly reduced with bird-safe building design, both at the commercial and residential level.

FLAP's goal is to both promote the changes that will prevent collisions in the first place, and to rescue as many of the strike victims as possible. They collect the birds who are merely stunned, and keep them safe from predators and pedestrians in brown paper bags until they can be released. Injured birds are treated by wildlife rehabbers whenever possible, sometimes requiring stays with the Toronto Wildlife Centre.

Then there are those that don't survive.

They are collected nonetheless, assuming a predator like an opportunistic seagull doesn't get to them first. They are tagged and information on their species, strike date, and location found are recorded (time and cause of death, if you will). Then they are put in a freezer, out of sight and out of mind for the many Torontonians who have unknowingly built their lives in a major migratory path.

Out of sight and out of mind until the annual layout day. Which was Monday.


According to the FLAP press release, over 1,700 bodies were laid out on Monday, representing over 90 species. The bodies, which were only on display for an hour, were collected during both the spring and fall of 2013.




Red ropes kept visitors from getting too close, from accidentally stepping on and crushing those hollow bones that are strong enough to fly to South America and back.



Within the sea of feathers and curled feet, I tried to pick out individuals. To remember that these weren't just birds, plural. Each had been on its own journey, following ancient instincts telling it where to fly and feed and breed, when our shiny city got in the way.




It was especially hard as a birder to see dead species that I've yet to see alive. I won't be adding the American Woodcock to my "lifelist", although I saw three of them on Monday.


There was even a collection in the centre of the display of several Species at Risk. Canada Warblers, Whip-poor-wills, and a Rusty Blackbird among them.





The layout is meant to draw attention to the problem, and what FLAP is trying to do. It was held on the first day of March Break proper, and the CBC showed up, though I haven't been able to find a report online. There was an article from Global News, at least.



Volunteers also spoke one-on-one with ROM visitors, allowing those who were interested to touch the deceased. Many of the volunteers were children, the same age as the most curious on-lookers.


Unfortunately, while many families did stop and look and listen, I heard some parents hurry their children along, presumably to head to the more sterile and less upsetting displays. I heard others do that thing some parents will do, answering their child's questions with downright wrong information, either because they didn't want to admit to not knowing everything, or because they didn't want to take the time to ask a question themselves.

No, they were not stuffed birds from the ROM's collection. Did the smell of thawing corpses not give that away?

No, this was not just a touch-table anatomy lesson that would be there all week. This was a lesson about birds who didn't need to die.

But yes, you could have touched them, if you were gentle and respectful and if the adult you were with wasn't so long-past remembering what it was like to be genuinely curious about life and death and the natural world.


When the appointed hour was up, the FLAP volunteers gently collected the birds one last time. They were hand-picked, literally, and sorted into bags. Unlike the warm, dark safety of brown paper "recovery" bags chosen to calm tiny racing hearts, these were clear plastic bags. Specimen bags.



Some of the less common species stayed at the ROM, chosen by staff ornithologist Mark Peck to be studied or added to the permanent collection.


Others were divided up to be sent out to other local research projects. Either way, each individual was packed up into a bag or tote box and moved on, but not to the destination of their choosing. Not to the place where instinct had urged them to go.



All those birds, and not one of them got where they were going.



On Monday, FLAP also unveiled a new app, the FLAP Mapper, to help create a global database of collision information. To learn about how to report bird collisions, how to make bird-friendly changes to your home and workplace, and how to volunteer or otherwise support FLAP, visit www.flap.org.


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