Helping Birds Make It Home

Who doesn’t like birds — at least, birds other than pigeons?  They are pretty and colorful, they add happy chirping and warbling to our world, and they are a pleasure to watch as they soar, dip, and dive and make us wish we could fly, too.

But birds have a big problem.  Every year, millions of them are killed in urban settings for reasons collectively known as fatal light attraction.  They become disoriented by the mirrored surface of an office building, believe the reflection of a tree is the real thing, and are killed by the resulting collision.  Or they think they have a clear flight path to the tree and pond in the glass-walled atrium and fatally crash into the unseen window. If you’ve ever seen a bird strike a window — from inside or outside — and heard the terrible hollow thud the unfortunate bird makes you probably won’t forget it.

Scientists also worry that the bright lights of cities may be altering migration patterns because the lights interfere with the bird’s ability to navigate by starlight.  In addition, bird deaths from fatal light attraction interfere with normal evolutionary processes.  Whereas survival of the fittest is supposed to mean the genes of the strongest, healthiest birds are passed to the next generation, death from a window collision can strike down even the healthiest of our flying friends.

People are trying to do something about the problem of fatal light attraction.  The National Audubon Society sponsors a “lights out” program designed to reduce light confusion, with local chapters across the country.   In Canada, an organization called FLAP — for Fatal Light Awareness Program — is encouraging the construction and lighting of buildings in ways that will help to minimize unnecessary bird deaths.  And authorities are starting to take notice, too.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced that non-essential outdoor lights will be turned off in state-run buildings between 11 p.m. and dawn during the peak migratory seasons in the spring and fall.

Right now, there’s a bird outside my window, chirping with pleasure as dawn approaches.  Fewer soulless mirrored buildings, an end to generic office building atriums, and turning off bright lights during the early morning hours — which presumably would be a financial and energy savings, too — so that birds can migrate safely seems like a small price to pay to ensure that we can continue to enjoy their sweet morning song.