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How Did Bird Friendly London Come To Be?

Bird-Friendly London is excited to announce the launch of our blog! Our blog will be a mosaic of contributions from local birders, environmentalists, scientists & everyone in between to provide you with a better understanding of London’s native bird populations. We started off by interviewing Brendon Samuels, Ph.D. Student in the Department of Biology at Western University and Coordinator for London's Bird Team.

What is your role with the Bird Team?

I act as the Coordinator for London’s Bird Team. Basically this means that I am responsible for setting up meetings, figuring out what we’re going to talk about at those meetings, and keeping all the Team members on the same page about plans. It’s an exciting role for me as a scientist interested in bird conservation because it grants me opportunities to transfer my knowledge and ideas into action, aided by support from some really outstanding community partners. As the first Coordinator I was partly responsible for helping to get the Bird Team off the ground by drafting and submitting our application to become certified as a Bird-Friendly City by Nature Canada.

What made you believe that London should go for the Bird-Friendly Certification?

The City of London and the London community were already doing so many amazing things for birds before we started talking about the Bird-Friendly City program with Nature Canada last year. Some features that distinguish London from other cities include our extensive natural heritage system – the green spaces in our Environmentally Significant Areas and other parks, the diversity of environmental community programs offered by the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority and Nature London and London Environmental Network (all members of the Bird Team!) and many others, London’s bylaw prohibiting people from allowing pet dogs and cats to roam outside (and killing birds and other wildlife), measures to reduce light pollution through the city’s Bird-Friendly Skies program, a facility at the university dedicated to bird research… I could go on but I think you get the idea. Since London was already taking steps to conserve birds, it made perfect sense to have the city be formally recognized for its efforts.

How does a city become Bird-Friendly certified? What tasks did London need to do in order to get that certification?

The process of becoming certified as a Bird-Friendly City involves putting together an application that gets submitted to Nature Canada. As part of the application, a candidate city needs to check off a bunch of criteria that Nature Canada provides. The criteria consist of 25 actions to help birds that fit into three categories: 1) Threat Reduction, 2) Habitat Protection, Restoration and Climate Resiliency, and 3) Community Education and Outreach.

For us, the certification application process was mostly about taking stock of all the great stuff already happening and being done for birds in London and, in a way, celebrating the cultural importance of birdlife in our community. The application was actually pretty seamless - there weren’t a whole lot of further actions we needed to undertake in order to meet Nature Canada’s criteria for a Bird-Friendly City because London had already done so much! Of course, there is still a lot of work left to be done to conserve birds in the Forest City, and so I hope London’s recent certification provides us with a launching pad to inspire further actions.

What is your vision for London citizens and how they interact with the bird population?

In wrestling with my own ecological grief, I often find myself wondering about how we can get people to care enough about environmental problems to actually do something about solving them. I believe that the average person in London supports having healthy bird populations, at least in principle. Besides being ecologically important, birds are visible, charismatic and likeable wildlife. At the same time, a lot of people don’t appreciate just how dire the current situation is for many bird species, or that their individual actions can either harm or benefit bird conservation quite a lot.

Some of the biggest challenges facing bird conservation – combating habitat degradation and loss, preventing collisions with windows, mitigating predation by domestic cats, to name a few – really boil down to changing individual human behaviours on a societal scale. The way I see it, we already have the knowledge and tools that we need to save birds. Now, it’s up to people to implement them. In London, conservationists should continue to have conversations with those people, including city politicians and city staff, the development community, homeowners, families and especially young people who stand to inherit great responsibility for a fractured natural world. We need to be in touch with Indigenous peoples in and around the London area who have relationships with and understanding of the birds and land going back much further than our time here. Much of the work of the Bird Team moving forward involves engaging with these stakeholders through dialogues and education.

I hope that the city will update certain policies with implications for bird conservation to ensure they are consistent with best practices according to science. When changes are made at an institutional level, they can have trickle-down effects on individual behaviour. For instance, if the City of London follows through on their commitment to require bird-friendly glass to be used in the design of new buildings for permitting site plans (following the lead of other cities like Toronto), then developers across London will change their purchasing habits to comply with the rule. More bird-friendly glass will appear on buildings throughout the city and over time Londoners will become familiar with the concept that untreated windows near habitats are hazardous for birds.

On the other hand, introducing rules isn’t always sufficient to change behaviour. London’s Animal Control By-law already prohibits allowing pet cats to roam outside, but many cat owners allow them to anyway. It is not feasible to create rules requiring private landowners to plant native species so that healthy ecosystems can co-exist in human-dominated landscapes. So, for certain issues that require cooperation from the public, we need to look beyond a framework of creating and enforcing rules and try to tap into motivations driving changes in individual behaviour.

If we can convince Londoners to take up small changes in their lives like treating their home windows to prevent bird collisions, training their cat to wear a leash, or planting native species in their yard, cumulatively these individual actions could make an enormous impact. To inspire collective bird-friendly actions from Londoners, we need to empower them with the knowledge that they can make a difference in their backyards, and in doing so they can participate both in the local community and in continent-wide efforts to conserve the migratory birds that connect us with our neighbours near and far.

To me, that’s the beauty of the Bird-Friendly Cities program; it contextualizes the actions we take here in London within the enormous efforts that are needed and already underway across the country, one city to the next, to protect the birds we all share and love.

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