Birdman of Bay Street

Sunday 8 June 1997

Carolyn Abraham
The Ottawa Citizen

Kevin Argue, The Ottawa Citizen / Michael Mesure holds a dead gray-cheeked thrush he picked up on Bay Street during his pre-dawn tour. Toronto's soaring skyline claims about 10,000 birds in night-time crashes annually.

Hours before Toronto awakes, Michael Measure scours the downtown rescuing injured migratory birds that have crashed into city's skyscrapers

The city skyline is a master of seduction.

The victims are drawn by the hundreds of thousands to its glowing towers, enticed by their radiance.

The birds swarm through night skies, defying the exhaustion of crossing Lake Ontario to reach it, only to crash in mid-flight -- head and beak and wings -- against the beckoning windows of a skyscraper.

Half of them die. The rest drop to the city pavement below, hungry, dazed or unconscious.

If scavenging gulls do not swoop in first, street cleaners sweep away the tiny feathered frames camouflaged by concrete.

The others, the fortunate ones, are saved by the Bird Man of Bay Street.

Hours before Toronto wakes, before streetcars bulge with commuters and the city roars to life, Michael Mesure has landed.

By 4 a.m., the tidy, articulate 33-year-old has driven from his home in the north suburb of Thornhill and parked at a lot at Bay and Front streets as he has done every spring and fall for the past eight years.

He is outfitted in khakis and Gor-tex (a distinctly un-Toronto hallmark). He trawls the darkened aprons of office towers rescuing migratory birds that have smacked against the city's structures. He carries a badminton racket turned bird net, a cloth sack for the deceased, brown paper bags to transport and warm the wounded, and injectable vials of the steroid Dexamethazone to reduce brain swelling and blood pressure in unconscious birds.

Toronto's soaring skyline claims about 10,000 birds in night-time crashes annually. The victims span more than 110 different insect-eating species en route from South America, Mexico and the southern United States in search of food. Among the victims are everything from hummingbirds to the short-eared owls.

The World Wildlife Fund of Canada estimates tens of millions of migrating birds collide against the buildings of North American cities each year -- dwarfing the 300,000 birds killed in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that reaped international outrage.

Environmentalists suspect the yearly slaughter not only risks the continuation of species but jeopardizes the ecological system. Mosquitoes or cluster flies could reproduce exponentially if there were not enough birds to eat them.

And much of this carnage could end, Mr. Mesure is convinced, if only people would turn off the lights.

"They are drawn to the lights, some people say, like moths to a flame," he says. "But they cannot see the glass ... and most collisions occur after dark."

And so Mr. Mesure is in pursuit of darkness.

He decided in 1993 he was tired of wandering the city alone and founded FLAP, the Fatal Light Awareness Program. It is now a registered charity with some 20 volunteers who patrol the downtown rescuing birds in the middle of the night, every night, during the six migrational months of the year. They collect about 3,000 birds each year, half of which survive.

By day, Mr. Mesure is FLAP's chief lobbyist, persistent as a courtyard pigeon.

He convinced the CN Tower to turn off its lights from dusk till dawn during migrational months and from midnight to daybreak all year round. He converted the property managers of 70 Toronto buildings to encourage workers to turn off the lights. And he counsels architects on bird-friendly designs, suggesting low-rises with non-reflective windows.

His crusade -- hovering with just a couple of hundred bucks in the bank -- is spreading. Calgary, Regina, New Brunswick and New York City want to start a FLAP of their own. One query has come from Ottawa, where the problem has been neither evaluated nor discounted.

Toronto's core is an eerie charcoal world this Friday morning, ephemeral light dancing on asphalt black and slick with rain. The sticky whoosh of a car is the only break from silence.

Mr. Mesure stops suddenly. "Did you hear that?"

The high pitched notes in the distance could be dismissed as a train track in need of oil to the untrained ear. But to Mr. Mesure it is, without question, one of three mating calls from a male white-throated sparrow trapped somewhere in the concrete forest.

"Well, it is mating season," he says, "I guess he figures he might as well sing ... he's not going anywhere."

It is the world far above the ground that dents Mr. Mesure's tranquillity. The fluorescent office lights stretching skyward are to him neon signs that read: death trap.

"Those towers are about the worst," he says, pointing to Toronto Dominion's five black skyscrapers. "Seventy per cent of those lights are on and because the building is black it disappears against the backdrop of the night sky. It makes the building seem almost invisible."

"I know there are some people in this city who work around the clock, lawyers, accountants whatever," he acknowledges.

"They can keep the lights on all night long if they have to, but they should be able to control the light that escapes from their windows, with dark blinds or whatever."

When gripped in the fist of anger, he fantasizes about emptying a bag of dead birds on the desk of a stubborn building manager.

Mr. Mesure's bird fascination took flight in childhood when he craned and hushed for a bird sighting or sound in the back yard of his family home, which buttressed a golf course. He read about birds, sketched birds and went off to art college to perfect his watercolour paintings of birds.

"It's the mystery of those little tiny bodies able to fly," he says, struggling, uncharacteristically, for words to explain the passion.

"They're beautiful, that's all, just beautiful."

He has not a lick of formal science or biology education, but saving birds is his full-time job.

It began in 1989 when a friend told him about the rare bird species a science professor showed off in class -- birds the professor had found on the pre-dawn streets of Toronto.

Mr. Mesure works on intermittent contracts with the World Wildlife Fund, but barely makes a living. This summer he is moving to an apartment at his parents' house. They are supportive of his calling and nature buffs themselves.

"I don't want to do anything else," he says earnestly. "What else would I do?"

He crawls into a circle of office workers lost in a cigarette break to rescue an unnoticed brown creeper from a heel. He climbs the six-metre atrium of the Bay and Wellington building as though it were monkey bars to extricate an ovenbird beating itself against the glass and metal frame in vain. And he can spot the wounded -- species and condition -- from half a block away.

"You can tell when it's lying on its side that it must be dead. If it was still alive it would be curled up into its chest," he says, cradling a dead gray-cheeked thrush momentarily in his palm, briefly stroking its breast before placing it in the sack.

He is an urban pied piper. People tell stories of birds landing on his head, accounts Mr. Mesure confirms.

"Once there was this yellow-bellied sapsucker, most people know it as a woodpecker, that flew right on to my Tilley with his tail feathers in my eye and just perched there," says Mr. Mesure.

Security patrols in Toronto's financial hub have blossomed into bird buffs able to rhyme off and identify species, largely because of him. Twenty-seven-year-old Tony Belchior, a guard on the graveyard shift at the Royal Bank Plaza, tells Mr. Mesure of the Swainson's thrush he barely snatched from the beak of an anxious gull an hour earlier.

"I think it's a Swainson," Mr. Belchior says. "At first, I thought it was a hermit thrush because it seems so large. You better take a look."

The thrush is a ball of quivering feathers. It waits in a closet-sized aviary in the bowels of the Royal Bank Plaza. The aviary was created by building staff so Mr. Mesure and his midnight troops need not run to their cars with bird in bag every few minutes (on one recent day, that would have meant 280 trips).

"I think the (security guards) are quite keen on it because it's a real break from the monotony of the job," says Mr. Mesure as he opens the aviary door with a set of keys that allow him access to virtually every locked area of the building perimeter to aid his search.

His followers are religious in their devotion to the cause. Take Maureen Flynn, a teacher who has schooled elementary pupils in the Toronto suburb of Maple for decades and now finds herself leaving home three days a week at 2:30 in the morning to save birds in downtown Toronto. She calls them "darlings," searching for them for three-and-a-half hours before heading to the classroom.

"Michael is a wonderful inspiration," says Ms. Flynn, who has volunteered since March. "He is doing groundbreaking work and just to be part of that, that amazing feeling of taking a bird that would have been dead and releasing it to freedom. I It's spiritual."

Badly injured birds are turned over to the Toronto Humane Society, where, spokeswoman Amy White says, most can be released within 24 hours.

Mirrored windows are especially treacherous for male birds -- cardinals, robins and blue jays in particular. They believe their reflection to be another male bird attacking and bash themselves, sometimes to death, against their glass image.

But even male birds with busted beaks can have the jagged edges filed down until they grow back, like a finger nail, to full length.

Those too badly wounded, says Ms. White, are humanely destroyed.

Mr. Mesure has heard some people say birds are dumb for flying into windows year after year. But he points to the repetitive decals plastered at human eye-level every quarter-metre or so in the glass lobbies of the skyscrapers.

"Who do you think these are here for?" he asks rhetorically.

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