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Dimming the Way
Bejeweled skylines may look nice, but when it comes to protecting migrating birds, a darkened city is better.

Turning off unnecessary lights, such as those depicted in the diagram above, can be a boon for birds. The illustration appears in Toronto’s “Bird Friendly Development Guidelines,” which offer a variety of suggestions on how to make buildings and their surroundings safer for birds.
Jason Harris

Several years ago Linda Day saw the light—and switched it off. Having volunteered to chair Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s committee on nature and wildlife, she was surprised to learn of an insidious epidemic involving mass bird killings and tall, illuminated buildings like those in her city. As a professional property manager (and wildlife aficionado), Day knew it was her duty to help reduce the carnage. “We’re building managers, we’re not monsters,” she says. “We don’t want to kill birds.” Working with the City of Chicago, Chicago Audubon, Audubon Chicago Region, The Field Museum, and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), she helped establish the nation’s first lights out program that was designed to protect migrating birds.

In general, lights out campaigns like Chicago’s recommend that during both spring and fall migration seasons, tall buildings extinguish bright exterior lighting—and when feasible, interior illumination—from 11 p.m. or midnight to dawn, the period during which most nocturnal migrants pass through cities. Chicago’s project follows in the footsteps of the Fatal Light Awareness Program, or FLAP, a Canadian organization that helped bring the issue to the public’s attention. The group introduced its program in 2005, in partnership with the City of Toronto and dozens of other stakeholders. Since then multiple Audubon offices have helped start similar projects in their own cities, including New York City Audubon, Detroit Audubon and Michigan Audubon, Audubon Minnesota, and Massachusetts Audubon.

The lights out idea stems from the fact that birds traveling at night take cues from the moon and stars, and lights on buildings can serve as attractants—particularly during bad weather when the cloud cover is low, which causes birds to drop their flying altitude. Disoriented by bright spots on buildings, birds run the risk of crashing into their facades. In most cases, however, deceived birds are most likely to settle into cities to rest. On the ground amid a phalanx of windowed offices and storefronts, they face a bigger danger in the form of glass, which they don’t perceive as a barrier (see “Pain in the Glass,” November-December, as well as the Acopian Center for Ornithology at Muhlenburg College in Pennsylvania). But turning off lights on the tops of buildings can prevent some of those birds from being drawn to the city in the first place. Extinguishing interior lighting, too, such as that in lobbies, might help reduce strikes by birds that have dropped into the city and are searching for food—or an escape route.

Anyone considering starting a lights out campaign should understand that it can be difficult to convince building managers or owners to agree to turn off their lights—particularly given the cost of lighting installations, such as vanity fixtures that exist to show off a building’s architecture. But eventually, building operators realize, “ ‘Oh, we’re getting good press out of this,’ ” says Day. “ ‘Our building looks good because we’re helping the environment and the birds.’ ” To spread the word around the building community, Day contacted the Chicago chapter of BOMA, which agreed to alert its members to the campaign. The backing of an organization like BOMA can help ensure compliance, says Day. “People listen when they speak.”

Recently, conservationists, including Audubon members, have been talking about holding a symposium on ways municipalities can enhance bird safety, such as by starting lights out programs. According to Kelly Snow, an environmental planner for Toronto’s City Planning Division, the meeting will likely take place next June or July and might include at least one workshop, some presentations, and maybe a few panels.

Considering that about a billion birds die annually in the United States alone from colliding with buildings, ensuring bird safety is an important goal for any city—and one that can develop into broader conservation policies. Toronto, for example, is now working on a comprehensive light pollution policy that will address not just birds but also human health and energy. And when you get right down to it, turning off lights does seem like a no-brainer. “There is no environmental issue that is as easily resolved as this. How often can you flick a switch and a problem disappears? And with so many benefits as a result,” says Michael Mesure, the director of FLAP. “It’s a win-win situation no matter how you look at participating in light reduction. Everyone benefits.”

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