Lights Out for Birds in New York

By Dana Kobilinsky

Bird Image Credit: USFWS, Midwest Region

While city lights at night might be majestic and beautiful to some people, for migrating birds, they can be fatal.

But, the State of New York including New York City are putting forth efforts to turn off unnecessary lights in buildings in order to reduce the risk of collisions for many birds, including ones that are migrating along the Atlantic Flyway.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced that state-run buildings will participate in the New York State Lights Out Initiative — part of a national effort to reduce bird collisions caused by lights. And New York City’s Audubon Society has been urging building owners to turn out lights during birds’ migration seasons since 2005 when then mayor Michael Bloomberg declared Lights Out New York, according to Susan Elbin, the director of conservation and science at New York City Audubon Society.

“We hope to make the city safer for migratory birds, benefitting birds and also people who enjoy them,” Elbin said. “I never realized that collisions was such an important conservation issue until I saw a dead bird on the sidewalk — and then another, and another. These are not only the most common birds, but birds of all species, ages and conditions.”

Migrating birds can become disoriented by lights, causing them to lose their sense of direction and wind up in inappropriate places — like city sidewalks. When they take off in the morning, they often crash into reflective windows which can ultimately result in their death, according to Elbin. Further, when birds pack on extra fat before they migrate, they are not calculating for extra fuel they may need if they are drawn toward distracting lights. And that’s not all: Over the years, NYC Audubon has been monitoring the September 11th Tribute in Light memorial for those killed in the World Trade Towers collapse. The two beacons of light project skyward and, because September is during the peak of fall migration, they can have a significant impact on birds. “The specks you can see floating in lights is not confetti; it’s birds!” she said, noting that when the lights appear to be confusing the birds, the Municipal Arts Society will dim them until the birds disperse.

To reduce the damage caused by lights, New York City Audubon reaches out to building owners of major real estate in the city. Building owners, who agree to participate in this spring and fall initiative, turn out decorative lighting after midnight and turn out lights when they’re not being used.

The majority of migratory birds get to New York City around midnight and an hour or two after, when many people are not using buildings. Elbin said they are urging people to turn out these lights, or even pull the shades down so light doesn’t leak from the window. New York City Audubon also has been identifying areas that have the largest number of bird fatalities. The organization has an interactive website that allows people to sign on and report where they found a dead or injured bird, which, in turn, helps the researchers find bird fatality hotspots.

The important thing is to conserve all species of birds, Elbin said. “Many of the birds that are in the top 10 list of collision victims are not endangered or threatened — yet” she said. “Between six hundred million and 1 billion birds are killed each year in the U.S. If we don’t address the problem, even populations of common birds will decline and they may become threatened or endangered species. Glass and light are non-discriminating sources of mortality.”

Among the buildings already signed up for the initiative are famous New York landmarks including Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and the Time Warner Center. Elbin hopes to get more building owners on board.

“This is important because birds play a major role in our ecosystem: eating insects, pollinating plants, eating carrion,” she said. “And at the same time, there is an economic reward to the consumer for turning lights off. It really is a win-win.”

Image Caption: The American woodcock (Scolopax minor), a species of conservation concern in New York, is one among many species that have been facing fatalities due to lights and glass in cities. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced state-run buildings will participate in a Lights Out Initiative to help reduce bird collisions.

Dana KobilinskyDana Kobilinsky is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at dkobilinsky@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article. You can follow her on Twitter at @DanaKobi.

Read more of Dana's articles here.