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Birds have a new friend, immigrant has a new future

Toronto's newest bird-friendly building consultant and supplier has its origins in some very new thinking, born of a very old sort of life experience. It's a tale we don't hear too often anymore, but one you can still find a trace of if you move quickly, before it's turned into a condo such as down at Honest Ed's, where the blown-up newspaper clippings tell the story of how poor immigrant Edwin Mirvish came to Canada and made something of himself.

It's an old story, the sort Dickens and Horatio Alger wrote.  But it's one that echoes to this day: that of an immigrant who moves to a new country to start a new life.  

In November 2000, Christian Szabo landed in Toronto from Hungary, 19 and hungry. He lived in shelters for two months, got a job at Food Basics, and within six months, he met a guy who was willing to give him what sounds like the worst possible job: cleaning up bird droppings. But it was working for a small business, with the possibility to rise, or at least learn, so he took it.

It was a one-man, one-truck bird control company, the sort that puts up netting and spikes to keep birds away from business entrances and whatnot. Szabo knew nothing about birds, but he soon learned a lot about their droppings--and what his boss was doing right, and what he was doing wrong. Six months later, modest monies saved, he quit and started up his own bird business.

"As far as having an idea and making it into something that creates value, there's much, much more opportunities [in Canada]," Szabo says in his friend's cafe, Crema, in the Junction near where he now lives. "I had credit cards in no time. I purchased a truck, I had a chance, I had an opportunity, and I used it to invest and start the company. I was quickly getting jobs, sometimes raking in as much as $1,000 a day."

His company Pigeon Busters treated birds as pests, installing various forms of obstructions to keep them out of places clients wanted them kept out of.

By 2009, he'd made enough money to bring his mother and sister over from Hungary, and open another business: Krepesz Cafe in Kensington Market. His family worked there, while he kept Pigeon Busters going in the background.

By last year, Szabo figured he had to expand or get out of the cafe business and since his mother and sister had grown tired of making cortados and crepes, he sold the business. He dove back into birds with a new company, Humane Bird Control (HBC) Integrated. Though Pigeon Busters is still operational, HBC represents a sort of evolution in Szabo's thinking, and his understanding of the bird business.

"Pigeon Busters considers birds pests," Szabo says. "HBC does not consider birds pests, but part of our natural environment, that have to be considered rather than excluded."

Protecting, rather than preventing, birds has given him a new perspective on the city's infrastructure and its relationship to the nature that surrounds it.  

With HBC, Szabo and his staff of two provide consulting on bird-friendly building, as well as labour to install various sorts of bird-friendly equipment, as they're doing now on the Waterpark bridge connecting the Waterpark condos to the ACC under the Gardiner. The company has designed a height-adjustable net-based bird prevention system, and is installing bird-friendly glass.

According to the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), bird collisions, which take place mostly at night when birds fly into windows while following window light, are a very big problem that's only now coming to the fore. Toronto's had guidelines in place to protect birds since 2007, but given the long, slow building process in this city, the first buildings to be forced to abide by them have only started going up recently.

"Bird collision with buildings has taken quite some time to get the level of attention it's now receiving," says Michael Mesure, executive director and co-founder of FLAP Canada. "It's simply that it's one of those environmental issues that, even though it happens beneath our very noses, it looks like it's no big deal, one or two birds hit my house, or one I see at the office. But then you do the math..." 

There are 930,000 structures with windows or other forms of structural glass in the city, each one claiming between one and 10 birds a year, which means roughly one to 10 million dead birds a year.

Like most people, I haven't seen that many. Mesure and his volunteers, who roam the streets collecting these birds, have.

"The birds that we find at the base of buildings are, the vast majority of them, species we don't even think of as being here, ones that are just passing through," he says. Mesure and his team have picked up 167 species since the company started in 1993, 20 of which are on the endangered or threatened species list. 

"I've been doing this for 26 years: Birds I used to pick up commonly are now finding themselves on the listed species list. We're not talking about Canada geese, pigeons, or starlings. These are birds in big trouble. These birds play a key role in insect population, pollinating flowers, a huge role in the natural environment. We can't take them for granted."

Up until now, Szabo's clients have mostly been in the deterrence end of things, retrofitting buildings that want or need to address an existing problem. Clients have included the government building at 222 Jarvis, and the military base at Trenton. "You don't want your building to interfere with bird habitats," Szabo says, "but you also don't want your building to be a bird habitat."

However, in January, HBC signed a deal with Arnold Glas, the German-founded, California-based company that produces Ornilux, a completely transparent glass that moves beyond etched or fitted glass and wards birds off by incorporating a layer of ultraviolet laminate, visible to birds but invisible to humans. According to Mesure, Ornilux is at the forefront of a new approach that's getting mixed reviews, but is almost certainly the future.

"I believe that once they nail it, once they perfect it and it's proven to work effectively, this will become the industry standard," he says.

HBC already has its first two Ornilux-based projects, at the Centennial Beach Cafe and the Pacific Wildlife Research Centre, both in Delta, BC.

This is the sector of the business that Szabo aims to devote the majority of his time to. And with HBC at the leading edge of what's looking to be a major new segment of the building industry, and the building boom showing few signs of slowing down, it's likely he'll be able to do just that. Ed Mirvish's deals were famously for the birds. It's good to see some immigrant stories don't change.

Bert Archer is Yonge Street's development editor. 
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