At least 90,000 birds are killed every year in New York City by colliding with glass in buildings as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds. Many fly at night and are disoriented by illuminated buildings and structures; bright light interferes with their natural navigational cues. To help mitigate this critical problem for birds, New York City Audubon is encouraging New Yorkers to participate in Lights Out New York. From September 1st to November 1st, midnight until dawn, they urge everyone to turn off the lights in city building to save birds and save energy.
Urban Green Council’s Rachel Schuder recently spoke with Dr. Susan Elbin, Director of Conservation and Science at New York City Audubon about Lights Out New York:
Rachel Schuder: Why should someone interested in green building care about this issue? Is it a really a big problem?
Susan Elbin: Being a green building is not just about being resource efficient in terms of energy consumption and construction, although Lights Out New York certainly does curb energy use. Being truly green is about taking a holistic approach to our environment, and part of that is conservation of wildlife. When manmade structures impede the ability of migratory birds to safely pass through or over our city, it is our responsibility to correct the problem. Turning lights out is an easy solution that really does help.
And yes, the problem is a huge. New York City Audubon’s data indicate that 90,000 birds are killed every year from colliding with glass—a number that we know is underestimated.
RS: How does turning off interior building lights at night help migrating birds? Aren’t birds more likely to collide with a building they can’t see?
SE: Migratory birds traveling at night are drawn to lighted areas, a phenomenon known as the beacon effect. Combined light emissions from city buildings produce an urban glow, like you see in nighttime photographs from space. Light disorients birds. It diverts them from their migratory path, brings them lower in the skies, and can cause them to use precious energy. Because most birds actually migrate at night, you can imagine the magnitude of the problem! Birds may collide with lighted windows at night or window reflections during the day.
Once these night fliers come in for a landing and begin to look for food and shelter, they face the daytime hazards of glass: reflections of trees in windows and false passages through glassed-in courtyards and indoor plantings confuse birds and cause them to collide with glass.
RS: Does building height matter? Are tall buildings more dangerous to birds?
SE: Yes. At night, birds use the earth’s magnetism and other visual cues such as the stars, moon, and topological features. The lights on tall buildings confuse the navigation systems of birds unlucky enough to have these buildings in their flight path. They circle the buildings repeatedly and die of exhaustion or by colliding with the building or each other.
RS: What kinds of birds are affected by this issue?
SE: Over 250 species migrate through New York City, about 5 million birds in all. Many of the birds killed at midtown and downtown buildings are small songbirds flying to and from the tropics, such as warblers, thrushes and tanagers. Some of these species’ populations are declining steeply in number. Our Project Safe Flight volunteers monitor the streets during migration and have found over 5,000 dead or injured birds of over 100 species at select buildings in downtown and midtown Manhattan.
RS: What other hazards do Manhattan buildings pose for birds?
SE: Reflective windows and lighted atria are significant sources of bird mortality. Our Bird-Safe Building Guidelines present specific recommendations for plantings and lighted atria. (Read our earlier blog post about the guidelines here.)
RS: Are there any incentives to entice owners or managers of large buildings to get involved?
SE: All participants in Lights Out New York receive acknowledgement on the New York City Audubon website and in our newsletters. Additionally, participants will find their energy costs significantly reduced during the Lights Out period. On the horizon, there has been recent talk of extending LEED credits to bird-friendly buildings, which would provide even more incentive.
RS: Do you have any tips to help people convince reluctant property owners or managers to participate?
SE: Participating in Lights Out New York really is a rare ‘win win.’ New York City Audubon asks that people turn off their lights during the hours when most people aren’t even using these lights. In return, they’ll be saving the lives of migratory birds while also reducing their energy consumption and carbon footprint.
RS: Do you have to live or work in a large building to participate?
SE: No. Every building helps. Collisions happen in buildings both large and small because of a combination of night lighting and daytime reflection. Each participant is one less obstacle for the migratory birds. The related decrease in individual energy consumption provides long-term benefits to the migratory birds, and less energy needs to be harnessed in the first place.
RS: Does a building have to be completely dark at night to participate? What if people need to work late or there is a night shift? What if I turn off my apartment lights but my neighbor doesn’t?
SE: The building doesn’t need to be completely dark. We understand that there are situations where turning off all the lights is not practical or safe due to a variety of circumstances. We ask managers to use their best judgment to determine when and where lighting is necessary. It would be best if we could create darkened swaths through the city, but every dimmed kilowatt counts.
RS: How much traction does the Lights Out New York initiative have? Are enough buildings participating to make a real difference? Have you been able to quantify the positive results the initiative has had here?
SE: Lights Out New York is gaining momentum. We currently have 60 participants (and growing) including major properties like the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center. Studies conducted by New York City Audubon and other groups have shown a link between light and migratory bird fatalities. These studies have also indicated that efforts to decrease urban glow, such as in Lights Out, have led to a decrease in migratory bird fatalities. Every building that participates is making a real difference. Every building, and every individual that participates, is decreasing the hazard for migratory birds.
It is important to note that turning the lights out does more than just reduce bird fatalities during the migratory season. There are also long-term benefits for migratory birds in terms of habitat protection, global climate change, and resource availability associated with a sustained decrease in our energy consumption.
RS: Is the Lights Out initiative happening in other cities? If so, how does New York compare?
SE: Programs similar to New York City Audubon’s Lights Out are happening in other cities including Toronto, Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia with great success. We are confident that as more New Yorkers become aware of this problem, New York City will be well on its way to becoming a truly green city and a leader in environmental policy.
RS: How does a building participate – do you have to sign up?
SE: You don’t have to sign up with New York City Audubon, but we’d appreciate it if you would. The more information we have, the better our data. We would like to quantify the number of participating buildings and their location and use this information in our collision data analysis. And we really want to acknowledge our participants. So if you are participating, please let us know.