Lights Out Is a Turn-on for Birds

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

Some 60 private buildings in Minneapolis have come on board during spring and fall migrations. And last May 1 the University of Minnesota began administering both required and recommended bird safety construction guidelines, alongside other construction guidelines, to any new buildings that receive state bond money--a zoo, for instance, or a stadium or park building. One required guideline is that glass on upper floors of buildings must have visual markings to deter birds.

As in Chicago, Lights Out in both Minneapolis and St. Paul depend on a cadre of volunteers who walk mapped-out routes each morning, looking for bird casualties. Warblers and sparrows are the most commonly found species.

Also as in Chicago, statistics may be misleading. "Measuring the program effect is really a challenge because there are so many factors that aren't controllable," Eckles says. "You can test it by one problem building, but I think the real measure of success is in the awareness we have raised, like the state coming to us and asking us to put bird safety information in a state construction guideline. That's huge."


East Coast cities are also involved. Lights Out New York, for example, has been active since 2005. More than 90 of the city's buildings have signed on, including such iconic properties as Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, and the Time Warner Center. "I think that Lights Out is really a win-win sort of solution," says Adriana Palmer, coordinator of New York City Audubon's Project Safe Flight. "It's a clear benefit to the birds, but for the buildings, any time they are turning off lights they are also saving energy and money."

Lights Out Boston offers yet another model. Its program was founded in the fall of 2008 by Massachusetts Audubon and Mayor Thomas Menino, and today more than 45 buildings participate, turning off both internal and decorative lights. Besides benefiting the birds, the program also helps Menino pursue his goal of decreasing Boston's greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Other cities, from Paris to Santa Rosa, California (see "Dark Side of Light," Field Notes, May-June 2013) have joined in, turning off their lights at night to save energy and help birds. In Houston companies, by becoming involved in the Lights Out program, are also supporting the city's stated goal of becoming the U.S. "Energy Conservation Capital." Then there's Earth Hour, an international tradition that began in six years ago in Australia; for one hour every March, cities and residences around the world go dark to save energy. All told, 153 countries have participated.

On the other hand, the movement is growing more slowly in some cities than others. San Francisco's Lights Out program, for example, started about four years ago under the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Although many buildings participated the first year, the chapter's small staff and limited resources have prevented it from tracking bird mortality and assessing if the program is really paying off. This year the Lights Out people designed a logo--a silhouette of birds against a city sky--in hopes it will give the program a new educational push, says Ilana DeBare, Golden Gate Audubon's communications director.

Lights Out Indianapolis, inspired by the success of Lights Out Chicago, was formed in 2009 by the Amos Butler Audubon Society. Although the program has enjoyed only modest success so far--just six buildings have signed up--things are looking up. "Since 2009 to 2012, we observed 1,299 bird strikes, counted by volunteers, and we demonstrated that certain buildings are problematic," adds Gorney. "Now, with the help of the City of Indianapolis and the help of the Indianapolis Zoo, we are making big progress educating buildings on Lights Out and bird safety." Above all, The Chase Tower, at 48 stories the city's tallest building, is in compliance.

Other more creative approaches are gaining traction. For instance, Chicago is encouraging buildings to shut off lights in lobbies, especially those with interior foliage, which can attract birds. Other cities, including Minneapolis, are pushing for changes in the way buildings are built. Eckles and others would like to see architects consider bird safety the way they currently factor in such things as energy use and heat gain. "I'd like to have bird safety be a part of what we think of sustainable design," she says.

Some have a loftier goal: cross-city collaboration. "What I would like to see is connectivity between programs, because if you think about it, these birds are making a huge trek through entire flyways," says Eckles. "I would love to see us sharing strategies and solutions, getting nationwide legislation, and coordinating efforts."

From all indications, the prospects for Lights Out programs look brighter than ever. "There was just a lot of goodwill, as nobody likes to see a dead or injured bird," says Chicago's Hunsinger. "We became on a first-name basis with doormen. Patagonia even donated organic cotton T-shirts for the volunteers. This has been just a beautiful human story."

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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!

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