For the Birds: Lights Out Philly

For the Birds: Lights Out Philly 1

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

A bit of good news for the to celebrate on this sunny morning on the cusp of spring.

I’m writing this from our hideaway on Point Lookout, Long Island, looking out through a picture window festooned with a bird silhouette, to deter other birds from crashing to their deaths into an obstacle they do not see.

My husband and I have retreated to this haven to wait out the pandemic.

It’s a bright sunny day here today – ideal weather for our daily beach walk this afternoon. The last week has been unusually warm, signalling spring is on the way, after a snowy, icy winter that reminded me of New Jersey winters of my childhood – although not quite as crips as the many years Spent in Boston..

The news I report was especially cheering to me, an avid birdwatcher. From The Guardian, Philadelphia calls for ‘lights out’ after skyscrapers cause hundreds of bird deaths:

The lights of Philadelphia may not shine as bright in the coming weeks as a coalition in the City of Brotherly Love tries to prevent millions of migrating birds that pass through twice a year from slamming into skyscrapers and crashing to the sidewalk.

Bird Safe Philly on Thursday announced the Lights Out Philly initiative, a voluntary program in which many external and internal lights in buildings are turned off or dimmed at night during the spring and fall.

The problem of artificial lights attracting birds to their deaths in the city is not new. “We have specimens in the academy’s ornithology collection from a kill that happened when lights were first installed on Philadelphia’s city hall tower in 1896,” said Jason Weckstein, the associate curator of ornithology at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences.

The coalition, which includes Audubon Mid-Atlantic, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club and two local Audubon chapters, formed after the city’s largest mass-collision event in 70 years was reported last October. Hundreds of dead birds were found around the city.

“Conditions were perfect for a heavy migratory flight and imperfect given that there was a low ceiling of clouds and rain,” Weckstein said. “That in combination with Philly’s bright city lights was a disaster for many fall migrant birds winging their way south.”

Not only do night lights lure birds to crash into windows, they also interfere with their ability to navigate. As per The Guardian:

Birds navigate during migration using celestial cues and when they cannot see stars on a cloudy night they get confused by bright city lights, according to experts. Windows pose a problem, according to Weckstein, because birds might see a reflection of trees or the sky.

And lest you underestimate the carnage to which artificial night lighting contributes, also from The Guardian:

Scientists estimate between 365 million and 1 billion birds are killed by collisions with buildings or other outdoor structures in the US every year and those crashes are taking a toll on some species.

Common yellowthroats, white-throated sparrows, gray catbirds and ovenbirds are the most common victims in Philadelphia, experts said, and those species are also threatened by the climate crisis and other predators.

“The ovenbird and the black-throated blue warbler are among the hundreds of bird species that are now at an increased risk of extinction in North America because of climate change,“ said Keith Russell with Audubon Mid-Atlantic. “But many of these species also face the additional threat of colliding with buildings.”

Brightly-lit skyscrapers are only one of many hazards for birds in flight. Others include wind turbines. Night lighting also disturbs birds’ circadian rhythms.

The Philly initiative set me to mulling why we don’t switch off blazing lights more often, not only because they disturb birds, but because they waste energy. Even here in sleepy Point Lookout, streetlights blazon throughout the night. Why?

I grew up in a small New Jersey town, sans streetlights. If one needed to walk somewhere at night, one did so by moonlight.

I suppose, on a particularly dark night, a flashlight or a headlamp could light the way.

The Philly program is voluntary: Why not make it mandatory?

Note I’m not suggesting cities do away with their street lighting entirely, as I understand the need for that in crowded places. But we don’t need to light up empty office towers.

The city is only the latest to act to protect passing birds by switching off the lights:

From The Guardian:

The National Audubon Society, along with partners, established the first Lights Out program in 1999 in Chicago. Philadelphia joins 33 other cities including New York, Boston, Atlanta and Washington DC.


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