Saving birds, one window at a time

Safe Wings’ 2019 display at City Hall of birds killed by buildings in Ottawa. PHOTO: KAREN CHRISTINA YOUNG

By Janette Niwa

Blackburnian Warbler in Safe Wing’s care.

It’s a story Safe Wings Ottawa hears often: A bird crashes into a window, remains stunned for a while then flies away. So it’s fine, right?

Wrong. Despite what many believe, birds that manage to fly away after a window collision are rarely okay. Almost all are concussed and most suffer internal injuries such as brain bleeds, impaired vision, severe bruising and more. Those that fly away often die later, become easy prey, or starve because they can no longer find food.

An initiative of the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Club, Safe Wings is tackling the problem of bird collisions with a team of volunteers who monitor buildings looking for dead birds, rescuing live ones and collecting data on each collision so we can prove there’s a problem!

We raise awareness and encourage everyone to contribute to our research by reporting collisions. We advocate for bird-safe buildings in the Ottawa area and convince building owners and operators to retrofit hazardous windows to make them safer. With help from the public, our volunteers also rescue injured birds and provide short-term care until they can be released or transferred to the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre.

Scientists estimate that one billion birds die in North America from window collisions each year, including about 25 million in Canada. In Ottawa, collisions with glass kill an estimated 250,000 birds every year. This is not sustainable!

Safe Wings began collecting data in 2014 when we documented 550 collisions from 68 species. In 2018, we documented 3,153 collisions across 111 species, of which only 616 birds were last seen alive, either rehabilitated and released or never captured, 76 left only an imprint on the window as evidence and 2,461 birds were found dead or died in care. Our annual total continues to grow thanks to more volunteers and public support, not to mention new glass structures adding to the problem. Also last year, Safe Wings founder and rehabber Anouk Hoedeman provided short-term care to 743 injured birds at her home in the Glebe.

Why is glass so dangerous to these birds? They don’t understand it because there are no comparable clear or reflective vertical surfaces in nature. So when a bird sees trees reflected in a window, it thinks they are real. If it sees vegetation on the other side of transparent glass, for example through parallel or corner windows or indoor plants, it does not know there is an invisible, lethal barrier. Many birds move as fast as 50 km/hour in regular flight. Think of a 215-pound hockey player hitting the boards at 20 to 30 km/hour without a helmet or other safety equipment. Now think of the damage to a 77-gram American Robin or a 10-gram Black-capped chickadee.

The good news is that we’re making progress! The federal government, the National Capital Commission and the City of Ottawa are all developing bird-friendly design guidelines and starting to make their buildings safer for birds. Residents are applying Feather Friendly and other solutions to prevent collisions at home.

The bad news is that we’re just scratching the surface. The City of Ottawa’s long-promised bird-friendly design guidelines are still not in place and new “bird-unfriendly” glass buildings and LRT stations continue to be built, along with new homes with floor-to-ceiling windows and clear glass deck railings. We need the public’s support to demand change and to take action themselves.

How can you help? If you find an injured bird (remember, that’s any bird that survives the initial impact), act quickly! Pick up the bird immediately and place it gently in the bottom of an unwaxed paper bag, top folded down and secured with a paper clip, or in a closed box. Keep it in a quiet, safe place, and call Safe Wings at 613-216-8999. Don’t let it fly away even if you think it has recovered. If the bird is dead, place it in a sealed plastic bag and keep it in a cool place (the freezer is perfect and perfectly safe) and contact Safe Wings.

If you want to help save even more lives, consider volunteering for us; we always need more drivers and building monitors, as well as help with other tasks.

Finally, 44 per cent of collisions are thought to occur at residential buildings, so please make your home safe for birds. Visit to learn about effective solutions. Don’t hesitate to call us if you need advice or help for a bird in distress!

Janette Niwa is a volunteer with Safe Wings Ottawa and an animal and nature lover.


Tips for bird-friendly buildings
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  • Make windows visible to birds with a pattern covering the exterior of the glass. Pattern elements should be no more than 5 cm (2”) apart, at least 6 mm (1/4”) wide, and visible in all light conditions. Use Feather Friendly visual marker tape, a patterned film, tempera paint (reapply as needed) or oil-paint markers.
  • Create a physical barrier with exterior screens, leaving at least 5 cm (2”) between the screen and the glass, or with lengths of paracord or twine at least 3 mm (1/8” thick), hung up to 10 cm (4”) apart in front of the window.
  • Locate bird feeders and baths either less than 50 cm (1 1/2 feet) or more than 9 m (30 feet) from windows.
  • Close curtains or blinds to reduce clear views through parallel or adjacent windows.
  • Move houseplants away from windows.
  • Turn off unnecessary lights at work and at home.


  • Expect hawk silhouettes or UV decals to prevent collisions.
  • Apply bird-friendly treatments to the inside of windows, where bright sunshine will make them disappear.
  • Rely on products that quickly fade or wash away, like UV liquids or highlighter pens.
  • Even bother with owl decoys or noise deterrents!
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