Saturday, September 24, 2005

New York Times Article: Kill the Light, Save a Bird

I'm so glad that New York Times ran this article to educate us about how the lights affect birds. How many of us NYCers and tourists think about wildlife while we are in this city and easily caught up in the wonders of people and buildings? Birds besides pigeons do exist and live above and around us.
-S


Kill the Light, Save a Bird

By JENNIFER 8. LEE
Published: September 23, 2005


Tourists have always flocked to see the bright lights of New York City, but starting this week, the city is dimming parts of its renowned skyline to ward off one group of visitors: migratory birds. The Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, the Citigroup Center, the Morgan Stanley Building and the World Financial Center are among the high-profile high-rises that have agreed to requests from the city and the Audubon Society to dim or turn off nonessential lighting at midnight.

At left, the Chrysler Building about 11 p.m. on Wednesday, and then an hour later, its lights turned down to aid birds.

Thus the city's skyscrapers will defer to nature at least twice a year: by dimming their lights in September and October, during the peak of the fall migratory season, and again in April and May, during the peak of the spring migratory season.

While the Empire State Building's lighting policy to protect migratory birds is decades old, and other buildings have used netting on glass windows so birds do not mistake reflections for sky, this policy will be the first citywide effort to protect migratory birds from crashing into buildings. The voluntary policy is aimed at buildings taller than 40 stories, as well as lower glass buildings that hug the Hudson and East Rivers, which birds use as navigational aides. About five million birds pass through New York City during migration season, according to E. J. McAdams, the executive director of the New York City Audubon Society.

The combination of glass, tall buildings and bright light is extremely dangerous for birds, according to Daniel Klem, an ornithologist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. He says that a conservative estimate is that more than 100 million birds die each year from crashing into glass on structures of all types, even houses.

"Here is the bottom line: Birds just don't see glass," said Professor Klem. "The animals are not able to recognize glass as a barrier and avoid it."

And lights, particularly those from skyscrapers, distract migratory birds from the visual cues they receive from the stars and the moon, said Douglas Stotz, a conservation ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago.

The bright lights of tall city buildings pull the birds off their migratory path and into urban canyons, especially when skies are foggy or overcast. Then the birds either crash into the building's glass at night because they are attracted to the light, or they circle the buildings until they become exhausted. In the morning, when they try to escape the city, they crash into the glass because they are confused by the reflection of sky.

Unless people look carefully, the dead birds can be hard to spot because many of them are small songbirds.

"They would be swept up by custodial staff," said Adrian Benepe, the New York City parks commissioner. "I've often seen them on the streets, and wondered, 'Why is this little songbird dead on the street?' "

Since 1997, Audubon Society volunteers have collected more than 4,000 dead birds of 100 different species at just a handful of buildings in Midtown and Lower Manhattan.

Toronto began a program to dim its lights in 1993, and Chicago started a voluntary program in 1999 that now includes 100 buildings. In Chicago, the Field Museum found an 80 percent reduction in bird deaths when lights were turned off during a five-year study on a single Chicago Building, McCormick Place. "When the lights are on, you get these big bird kills, and when they aren't, you don't," said Judy Pollock, director of bird conservation for the Audubon Society in Chicago.

Even with a dimmed skyline, the problem of birds crashing into glass remains. Environmental groups are working with the construction industry to come up with glass that can be seen by birds, potentially by giving the glass a UV coating.

Three real estate groups have agreed to promote the program to dim lights among their members: the Real Estate Board of New York, the Building Owners' and Managers' Association, and the Associated Builders and Owners of Greater New York. "We are going to make it a little safer for the birds to visit here," said Steve Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board, which represents many real estate developers. "The response that we have gotten is overwhelmingly, 'Sure.' "

Certainly lower electric bills help sell the concept. Call it saving two birds with one stone: preventing fatal bird crashes while conserving energy. Energy savings could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most buildings plan to turn off just their exterior lights, but some will also turn off interior lights and ask their tenants to draw the shades. The only buildings expected to opt out are ones that are contractually obligated to keep advertisements lighted, Mr. Spinola said.

Of the city's landmark buildings, the Empire State Building has long been aware of migratory bird problems. For at least 25 years, the building has turned off its decorative lights when large numbers of birds are observed flying around the top of the building during migration season. The circling birds are particularly common during foggy or overcast nights, said Lydia Ruth, a spokeswoman for the building.

Employees from the observatory will call down to the building engineers to tell them to shut off the lights. "We don't want to take any chances, and we don't want to cause any bird death," Ms. Ruth said. "But we have people call the next day, 'Why did you turn the lights out early?' You can't keep everybody happy."