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Lights out

Posted on 06-11-2017 by Becky Desjardings

Why turning off the lights can safe many lifes!

Migration is a very dangerous time for birds. They leave the breeding grounds and fly thousands of kilometres over open oceans and inhospitable urban terrain. During this time they can run into many challenges: bad weather, predators, and human created problems including collisions with buildings and cars.  Buildings in particular are extremely dangerous. In North America, ONE BILLION BIRDS are killed by collisions with manmade structures every year.

The reason why birds hit buildings is because they see differently than we do. When we see a window, we know that the trees and sky reflected in the glass are just that, a reflection. Birds think that it is a real habitat.  They hit the glass at incredibly high speeds and are killed.  This happens all year round: the average house kills 2 birds a year. But migration is the most deadly period because so many birds are on the move, and they migrate mostly at night, when buildings with the lights left on can easily disorient them. 

Photo: Dangerous glass!

One of the projects I have been working on since I arrived in North Carolina is the ‘lights out project’. This program monitors how many birds hit buildings in cities during spring and fall migration.  Every Wednesday before sunrise, I come to the middle of downtown Raleigh and along with a team of 3 ladies: Lena, Susan and Pieti, we walk under the tall buildings and look for birds that may have hit them overnight.  There is a team out surveying every day during spring and fall migration.

Photo: the buildings of Raleigh

We walk around for an hour, and we check the ground along the edge of buildings, awnings overhead where the birds may have landed after hitting a window higher up, and we talk to the street cleaning staff when we see them out and about.  The local bird club, Wake Audubon, started doing this survey work in 2013, and in 2016 as a result of their findings (lots of dead birds) passed an ordinance in which all buildings owned by the city have to switch their lights off at night. However, lots of the tall buildings in Raleigh are privately owned, so there are still lights on and fatalities as a result.

Some weeks we found no birds, but mostly we did find one or two birds. The first few weeks I helped out back in September, we found a few Common Yellowthroats, which is a small yellow songbird, but in the past two weeks we have gotten Swamp and White-throated Sparrows.  The Yellowthroat is on its way to South America, but the sparrows won’t go much further south than Raleigh, which may explain their later arrival time. All bird bodies are scooped up and put in plastic bags and donated to the museum’s collection. 

Even though we found only 1-2 birds per session, those numbers quickly add up! It is easy to see how building collisions are a huge problem.  And we can’t check many of the places a bird would land after striking a window higher up: such as high up ledges or awnings.  Many North American cities (Chicago, New York and Toronto) have ordinances requiring windows in lights to be turned off, so hopefully as the movement grows more people with offices or apartments high in the sky will remember to turn lights off overnight and give birds a chance.

Photo: sometimes, birds would land on an awning

This work has gotten me thinking, though, what do we do in the Netherlands to prevent migrating birds from hitting buildings overnight? Or wind turbines?

For more information:

The American Bird Conservancy

Wake Audubon

Speaking of Migration, my time in North Carolina is over and I will be coming back to the Netherlands soon!  In a few weeks I will update the whale blog with my next discoveries on that project.