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Safe Wings patrols for hurt birds on Ottawa’s most unusual bike

By Lee Pepper on May 10, 2016

I heard a pretty unbelievable Ottawa urban legend recently: sightings of a bike kitted out with customized gear and special paniers for rescuing injured birds.  That sounds totally made up, I thought, like something out of a Studio Ghibli movie.

All the same, I emailed around to a couple of local bird rescue organizations, trying to find out if there was any truth in this rumour of the mythical bird bike.

Anouk Hoedeman, founder of Safe Wings, emailed back that very day, and attached a photo of the not-so-mythical bird bike, which she uses for daily patrols of downtown Ottawa to pick up wild birds who have been hurt or killed in collisions with buildings.

The visibility of her unique bike has turned out to be an effective way to raise awareness of the danger of window collisions:

“Two or three times a week, somebody stops me to ask questions and I have an opportunity to tell them about the organizations. People now know the bike, downtown. I don’t always lock the bike up, since I have to stop suddenly and run into buildings. I always think, well, if someone sees this bike that says “Bird Rescue” on it, probably nobody’s going to go rooting through the paniers, and if they do… well, they’re going to find a dead bird or maybe a live bird, but either way…!”

“It may be the most unusual use for a bike in Ottawa,” Hoedeman said, and I couldn’t argue.

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Hoedeman generously agreed to join Apt613 for what turned out to be a lively conversation and a fascinating glimpse into the world of bird rescue and advocacy.  At one point, she had to take out her phone to co-ordinate picking up a dead hawk from a volunteer’s freezer, at another, she pulled out a ziploc baggie containing a deceased Nashville Warbler, impossibly small and still and lovely, which she discreetly showed me in the busy cafe where we were speaking.

Spring, migration season, is a particularly dangerous time for birds. For more information on what to do if you see a hurt or dead bird, please see Safe Wings’ website.

If you’re interested in learning more, Saturday, May 14th is Ottawa Bird Day. In celebration of International Migratory Bird Day, there will be events at Brewer Park to raise public awareness about migratory birds and provide information on ways to support their conservation. On June 17th and 18th, you can also catch The Messenger, a documentary about the decline of songbirds, at the Bytowne

This interview has been edited.

Apt613: How did Safe Wings start?

Anouk Hoedeman: I started it it in the spring of 2014. We’d talked about it before then, but that was when we started patrolling.

I’m sure you’ve heard about all the waxwings colliding with City Hall back in early April [of this year]. Well, the same thing happened three years ago, in 2013: the same species, the same location, the same time of year. I thought, that’s terrible, and I wondered if anyone was doing anything about it, and nobody was.

What is your daily routine for bird rescue?

During migration, I get up early, as early as I can, and I bike downtown and check buildings. Depending on the weather and how many birds I’m finding, I might do two laps, five laps, usually it’s three laps.  I have a set route now, because I’ve been doing this for a while, so I know what buildings need to be checked.

Are there spots downtown that are especially dangerous for birds?

There are always some buildings that are worse than others: generally mirrored buildings, really reflective buildings, especially if they have reflections of trees.  If you have several of these buildings near each other, it’s like a house of mirrors for birds. Another hazard is when you can see through a building and there are trees on the other side.

Can you tell me about your bike?

It’s a Dutch touring bike kitted out with enormous Dutch paniers. I had another bike that I used to use, but then one day I had a live sapsucker AND a live bluejay, as well as some dead birds, so I  realized I needed bigger paniers.

I had to extend the rack on the back of the bike because the paniers are so long.  I carry nets strapped to the rack, one small one, and one that has an extendable handle made from tent poles.

I have a dead side and a live side.  The left side has supplies for picking up dead birds, plus handouts, and printed paper bags with instructions for people on picking up birds.  The live side is padded and has crocheted nests. They make the bag more secure and block out noise.  

It’s also good to have an upright bike, if you’re going more slowly, and are looking around.

I can’t imagine patrolling on foot.  It takes forever, and you’d have to carry so much stuff! On my bike, I can often get a call from someone who’s found a bird, and be there in two minutes.

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The visibility of the bike must be a good advocacy tool, too.

I take a photo of all the dead birds that I find, and I try to be obvious about it.  I’m not an extroverted person, and when I first started out, I was shy about it.  But I realized, no, I want people to see me doing this: it’s an opportunity to raise awareness.

Plus the signs on your bike let people know you’re not just some weirdo, picking up dead birds for your art project or something…

That would also be illegal.  People don’t realize that it’s illegal to possess dead birds or parts of birds, with the exception of a few invasive species, you need to have a permit.  So we have a scientific permit from the Canadian Wildlife Service that allows us to pick up birds, and I have a rehab permit that allows me to have live birds.

Do you find it emotionally difficult to be dealing with hurt and dead birds?

I’m used to it, I guess.  It’s always sad, because they didn’t do anything wrong; it’s not survival of the fittest like some people say. It is horrible, though, to find one that is alive but then dies in your hands: seeing its pain and confusion, seeing the life leaving its body.

Photo of a rescued Ruby-crowned Kinglet, from Safe Wings' Facebook page.

Photo of a rescued Ruby-crowned Kinglet, from Safe Wings’ Facebook page.

How often are you able to save the birds?

We estimate we are only about to find at most 10% of hurt birds in the areas we patrol, when we’re in the right place at the right time. Last year, we rescued over 200 birds, and about half were released eventually.  We’ve broken all the records for the wild bird care centre, we’ve brought them so many birds.  

Could you tell me about the bird display that Safe Wings created at City Hall?

It was based on the Fatal Light Awareness Program in Toronto: every year, they have an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. We wanted to do the same, to raise awareness.  The display is over 960 remains, but it’s only a small fraction of the birds who are dying. It’s a huge number of birds, but also a huge variety: 96 species.

How could someone get involved with Safe Wings as a volunteer?

We’re always looking for people to patrol, but mostly what we want is for people to be aware of the problem and be on the lookout.  That’s why we hand out paper bags with instructions.  

Safe Wings hands out customized paper bags with instructions on picking up hurt or dead birds.

Safe Wings hands out customized paper bags with instructions on picking up hurt or dead birds.

One of the messages we try to get out is, if you see a bird on the sidewalk that’s not a pigeon, and especially if you can pick it up, it needs help.

We want people to know it’s a really big problem.  Bird populations are going down drastically worldwide, and windows are one of the leading causes of bird mortality.  People say, “oh, it’s just birds”, but birds are an important part of the ecosystem: they disperse seeds, they’re pollinators, they do pest control, they’re part of the food chain.

Windows are a huge problem, but it’s something we can fix.

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One of the crocheted nests that Hoedeman carries in the “live side” of the bike to safely transport injured birds.

What are some design changes that work?

The best thing is to design buildings with less glass, or have a pattern on the exterior surface on the glass.  

In Ottawa, Toon Dreessen, from Dreessen Cardinal, President of the Ontario Association of Architects, wrote an open letter about how the industry has to do more to prevent bird collisions.

Now that we’re in our third year, we are starting to feel that we have traction. Councillors are looking into what the city can do to introduce bird-friendly-design guidelines: Catherine McKenney and David Chernushenko were the ones who asked staff to put up kraft paper in the walkway at City Hall where the birds were colliding.

To learn more about Safe Wings Ottawa, check out their website or find them on Facebook and Twitter.

Five ways you can help Safe Wings help birds:

1. Prevent collisions by treating your windows.

2. Call them at 613-216-8999 or use their web form if you find a bird that has hit a window.

3. Sign their petition urging Ottawa to adopt Bird Friendly Guidelines.

4. Volunteer.

5. Donate to support rescues, research & education.