Lights Out Is a Turn-on for Birds

Photograph by Thierry Cohen/Danziger Gallery

Lights Out Is a Turn-on for Birds

Programs across the continent help protect birds from colliding with buildings.

By Brianna Elliott
Published: 06/30/2013

Many birds, particularly songbirds, migrate at night, navigating by the moon and stars. Mostly flying at altitudes below 2,000 feet, and even lower on foggy and rainy nights, they often become disoriented by brightly lit windows in tall buildings. The result is horrific: more than 100 million bird deaths in North America annually, and as many as 1,000 bird deaths per major structure, reports Massachusetts Audubon. In response, Audubon and its partners have organized Lights Out campaigns, urging buildings to hit the off-switch at night for bird safety.

In 1991 Toronto became the world's first city to address urban bird collisions when it launched the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP). About a decade later Chicago became the first U.S. city to follow suit. Today, as the movement has picked up significant momentum, more than 20 North American metropolitan areas--ranging from major cities like Washington, D.C., to smaller ones like Winston-Salem, North Carolina--participate in similar programs. The programs vary, but they're typically a collaboration between an Audubon chapter and local partners and involve convincing building managers and owners to join in by educating them about the benefits.

Many cities also provide online resources for bird-friendly and sustainable development. Toronto's Bird Friendly Guidelines, for example, suggest using reflection-free glass and visual markers on buildings and outline how to use lights to optimize bird safety. Participation is voluntary, and Lights Out programs usually focus on getting buildings to take part between midnight and sunrise for several months a year during spring and fall migration, when the bulk of migrating birds are passing through.

"There are multiple reasons why Lights Out programs are valuable," says Don Gorney, program manager for Lights Out Indianapolis. "It saves bird lives and also promotes energy conservation."


Lights Out programs began to get popular in the United States about a decade ago. In fall 2001 Robbie Hunsinger, a freelance oboist turned bird advocate, attended a presentation in Chicago by the director of FLAP and immediately determined that she would do something about bird collisions and buildings. In 2002 Hunsinger founded the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors to raise awareness about bird collisions and also to collect dead and injured birds off the city's streets (see "Pain in the Glass," November-December 2008).

"I was very concerned about this, so I started contacting building managers myself and explaining that, 'Hey, we're finding a lot of dead birds at your building,' " says Hunsinger. "I made friends with doormen, sweepers, and building managers. My protocol for the program was that there were no bad feelings or angry confrontations with managers because they were working with us and allowing us on their property. One by one the buildings starting turning off their lights." Hunsinger's grassroots effort was a smashing success. By 2004 every building in Chicago taller than 60 stories hit the switch for night-migrating birds.

Hunsinger points out that her activism was built on a foundation laid by then-Mayor Richard Daley, who had set the stage for Lights Out Chicago by launching it in principle a few years before Hunsinger came along. "Mayor Daley got Lights Out all written up; they just needed someone to do this on the ground," says Hunsinger, who even earned a bird-rehabilitation license in service to the cause and donated her cell phone number as the Bird Collision hotline. "It was like the perfect storm. People were just ready to help, and it was ready to go in Chicago."

Today Chicago Bird Collision Monitors has more than 100 volunteers. Seven days a week, about a dozen of them take turns walking or biking the streets at sunrise to find dead or injured birds.

Because of Chicago's location along the Mississippi Flyway and on Lake Michigan--"an unfortunate channel," Hunsinger says--volunteers still see an incredibly high number of bird casualties. On just one September morning they found 270 injured birds and 320 dead birds, mostly white-throated sparrows, brown creepers, and golden-crowned kinglets, according to Annette Prince, who now directs Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. Other common casualties include ovenbirds, Nashville warblers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and hermit thrushes.

Still, it's unclear what the casualty numbers really mean. "It's hard to use bird strikes to measure program success. We actually find more birds today than we did in 2004 because we have more volunteers to cover a greater area," explains Prince. "It's doesn't mean things are getting worse; it just means we have more outreach, and I think success is measured by the awareness we raise." By that standard Chicago has clearly set a model for other cities to emulate.

That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of other success stories. Take Lights Out in Minneapolis. Joanna Eckles, coordinator of Audubon Minnesota's Project BirdSafe/Lights Out, started the program after she, like Hunsinger, heard a lecture by FLAP's director. To raise architects' awareness about bird collisions, she and her team have offered lunch-hour educational talks. They've also spread the word via the newsletter of the Minnesota Building Owners and Managers Association.

Magazine Category

Author Profile


Charlotte NC participates!

My 4:30AM commute takes me past Uptown Charlotte - the skyline is so dim! It's hardly noticeable!

Charlotte NC participates!

My 4:30AM commute takes me past Uptown Charlotte - the skyline is so dim! It's hardly noticeable!

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.