The plight of birds in the city is raising questions about whether our need for homes outweighs that of our feathered friends.
A group of Distillery District condo dwellers and their MPP want to know why the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry issued a permit in mid-May allowing Lanterra Developments to move two young red-tailed hawks from a billboard on a condo building site. The birds did not survive.
That the hawks are not an endangered species, “doesn’t mean that you can just tear up their home, interfere with baby animals. It doesn’t mean a bad outcome is acceptable,” said Mika Hamilton, who along with her neighbours, had delighted in watching a pair of adult hawks nest and feed their babies.
North of there, avid birdwatcher Catherine Edwards is alarmed over at-risk chimney swifts nesting in a couple of lowrise buildings near Yonge and Eglinton, which a developer is demolishing to build a boutique condo.
“I see this as a larger issue across all of Toronto and North America,” said Edwards.
Government officials say in the hawk case all the appropriate steps were taken in allowing the hawks to be moved. With the chimney swifts, another government ministry says it is in contact with the developer and is assessing the situation.
But as development increasingly infringes on the natural and adopted habitats of birds, some nature lovers are asking if the rules designed to protect them are actually working. The stakes are increasingly high for endangered birds such as chimney swifts, that have already adapted to urban chimney stacks as their natural home as old growth forests disappeared. And even measures aimed at preserving the environment can cause more harm than good to some species, said one wildlife expert.
Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of Toronto Wildlife Centre, said the impact of development on the birds and animals in the city remains unclear but last year, the volunteer agency saw a record number of sick, injured and orphaned creatures.
There are direct impacts, such as with the Distillery District hawks, but there are also indirect impacts, which nobody is studying, she said.
“Toronto and many municipalities in southern Ontario are very progressive in trying to protect and maintain natural spaces like ravines, green roofs and greening schoolyards,” said Karvonen. But that creates “wildlife habitat smack in the middle of the biggest city in this country.”
That creates problems with no resources allocated to deal with them — such as glass towers on bird migration routes.
Karvonen calls green roofs “the bane of our existence” because so many ducks and geese nest on them. But within 24 hours of the babies hatching, the adults will walk the babies to the nearest water source, which of course doesn’t exist on the roof of a 20-storey tower.
“They all have to plummet to their death off that building unless someone like us can come out and catch them,” she said.
“Our rescue team is just crazily running from one green roof to the next in spring trying to save the lives of all these babies.”
In the case of the young hawks, Spadina—Fort York NDP MPP Chris Glover wrote to the minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, asking why it permitted the developer to move them from the billboard to a ledge nearby, “even though residents contacted the developer, warning that the ledge was dangerous.”
“As residents feared, the two chicks fell from the ledge while their parents watched helplessly,” said the June 8 letter.
Residents took one to the Toronto Wildlife Centre, where it died. The other fell where the neighbours couldn’t reach it. It was gone the next morning and is presumed to have died.
Making matters worse, said Glover, the developer did not work on the site for another 18 days, during which “the babies could have fledged on their own and survived,” he wrote.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry told the Star, “The authorization to relocate a red-tailed hawk nest was issued after the ministry was notified of imminent demolition activities and with careful consideration of the possible options.”
It said the young birds were “successfully relocated,” but were displaced “possibly as a result of the wind storm.”
Lanterra did not respond to the Star’s requests for comment.
Developers need an authorization to destroy or move nests and eggs of any species protected under Ontario’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. Red-tailed hawks are considered specially protected raptors under the act.
The ministry issues fewer than 20 permits a year on average to destroy or relocate bird nests for development, said an email from a spokesperson.
“Most provincially protected species avoid nesting in areas with high human disturbance and the nesting period is relatively short,” said the spokesperson.
“In cases where a development activity encounters a nest, the ministry promotes permanent avoidance of the area or delaying the activity until the nesting season is over and the young have fledged. Most proponents are willing to work with the ministry to ensure the best outcome for the birds,” said the email.
Chimney swifts are listed as a threatened species in Ontario. Edwards, who had been documenting the swifts for a year said she informed the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks of their presence when she saw a notice that the buildings where they were nesting were being demolished.
On June 8, Edwards saw demolition had begun, and again contacted the ministry, telling it the issue was time sensitive “because the chimneys are still intact … but demolition is happening throughout the rest of the building.”
When Edwards emailed developer Rockport Group, the company told her it had been contacted by the ministry and that it had hired an ecologist, inspected the chimneys inside and out using the Ontario Swiftwatch protocol, before registering a notice of activity with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
“We saw no evidence of habitat,” said the company in an email to Edwards.
Rockport said it capped the chimneys at 2100 and 2106 Yonge St. and “we are confident that we have taken all the required actions under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act.”
Despite finding no evidence of habitat the developer’s spokesperson told the Star that Rockport had secured a new habitat for the chimney swifts within two kilometres of the condo site.
“Despite meeting its obligations, including a thorough and prolonged examination of the property, experts in this matter were unable to confirm the site was in fact a nesting and breeding location for the chimney swift,” said an email from Danny Roth to the Star.
It doesn’t make sense to Edwards. “If the chimneys themselves weren’t suitable habitat, why would they need replacement habitat? Why would they cap them?” she said.
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks confirmed it was aware of the chimney swifts and had discussed the developer’s obligations under the Endangered Special Act (ESA) with its consultant.
“The ministry is assessing compliance against the ESA and has required the property owner to provide details regarding activities undertaken to prevent impacts to the chimney swift habitat. Once the compliance assessment (which includes a site visit) is complete, the ministry will determine if additional actions are necessary,” said an email from a spokesperson.
Edwards says Toronto has a responsibility to protect the swifts because we have a lot of old buildings with cultural heritage but also natural heritage value as bird habitat.
“That our planning process does not require any sort of review or action to protect them is problematic.”
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