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Photo courtesy of Safe Wings.

CityMakers: Anouk Hoedeman of Safe Wings on creating a bird-friendly Ottawa

By Nickie Shobeiry on February 22, 2018

The last time we spoke to Anouk Hoedeman was in 2016. Now, we’re catching up with Anouk about Safe Wings, their upcoming exhibit, and how CityMakers can come together to create a bird-friendly Ottawa.

Apt613: How did you start with this work?

Anouk Hoedeman: It was totally accidental! I’ve been a birder for a long time, probably 25 years. In 2013, there was an incident at City Hall, where a huge flock of Bohemian Waxwings flew into this transparent walkway that connected the new City Hall with the heritage building. That was all over the news – it was terrible, thousands of birds were dead or dying. I’d heard about the problem of bird collisions before; I lived in Toronto for a while, and knew they did something about it there. No-one was doing anything about it in Ottawa, so I asked around for any interested people. Here we are, a few years later!

How did Safe Wings get to where it is now?

Throughout 2013, we started really working on it. By 2014, we were researching, monitoring buildings and counting the number of birds affected by collisions. I talked to the city about the fact that they need to do something. They put up a few decals with good intention, but it wasn’t actually effective. In 2016, three years almost to the day, the same collision happened again with the same species of bird. We picked up thousands of dead birds, and lots of injured ones.

It happened to be a few days after our bird display at City Hall. The media were all over it. That really got action out of the city, because people were upset, writing to the mayor and to the councillors. They’ve since treated the glass and the walkway, and they did that very quickly. It’s an interesting quota to what got us started.

Your display at City Hall shows the number of birds who died from collisions. As a writer, and someone who has worked with the National Gallery of Canada, how does your story-telling translate into an exhibit like this?

I can’t take credit for the idea, because FLAP in Toronto do similar exhibits during the year. It’s a great way to raise public awareness, and make the point that collisions are a big problem. It’s visually showing people what happens when we don’t consider the lives of birds when building the city around us. The number of birds we have on display is just such a tiny fraction, as most get scavenged. We only monitor a tiny fraction of the buildings in the city. Last year we had over 1,500, this year we’ll have more than 1,000 again. There’s so many more birds out there, and we try to communicate that as an additional challenge.

It’s got quite the shock value.

It’s the shock value, but it’s also an opportunity to educate people, to make them want to do something about it. It’s very abstract if you talk about it just in terms of numbers. It’s different to be able to lay that out in front of people and say, “this is what that problem looks like.”

Have you had many challenges with the exhibit?

We have the support of several councillors. Catherine McKenney has been awesome in facilitating it for us during the last three years. Her staff helps us with booking spaces, finding what we need. We don’t need to pay for space rental, which is really great. One major challenge is that the birds are frozen; we take them out of the freezer, unwrap them, and lay them out in some kind of artistic fashion. We do all of that while getting as many people as possible through to see it, and talk to them. Then we pack it up again, and get the birds back into a freezer before it gets too smelly!

Does art have a duty to tell stories like this?

We try to make an impactful display, but there’s also the chaos of the moment as we’re working so quickly. We may have an idea about layout, but when you’ve got 15 people helping, it’s completely chaotic on the day! Sometimes we have a discussion about how we want it to look. Then, one the day, you’re busy doing stuff, and you turn around and realise it’s not what you meant, but you can’t change it. There’s only so much control we have over that artistic process, because there’s so many of us working on it at the same time.

How has the dialogue shifted since Safe Wings started?

For sure. The public are more aware of the problem, as are elected officials. The city is starting to develop bird-friendly design guidelines. It’ll take a while to be approved by council, but even getting to that point has been really rewarding. Like I said, when we started there was zero awareness of this problem in Ottawa – not even in the birding community, never mind among public officials, developers and architects. We’ve now reached a point where it’s started becoming normal to talk about this. I can talk about bird collisions in a design workshop, and people don’t look at me like I have two heads!

How can Ottawans support Safe Wings?

Many don’t realise that bird collisions are a problem at every building, not just high-rises. They may hear a bird hit their window once in a while, but they don’t realise almost all those birds die – if not immediately, then later. Our website has a lot of information on different strategies to make glass visible to birds. One small action has a huge cumulative effect. If everyone saves a couple birds a year, we end up saving thousands.

And what advice do you have to CityMakers out there?

Find a cause you believe in, and find like-minded people to help. It’s much easier to make a difference if you reach out and let others know you need their ideas and energy.


You can see Safe Wing’s Annual Bird Display this Monday, February 26th at City Hall from 3–6:30pm.