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What You Should Know About Bird Migration and Light Pollution

We are pleased to announce a new partner in the critical work of protecting the night from light pollution: the National Audubon Society. The two organizations are an excellent fit! Encompassed in Audubon’s mission to protect birds and the places they need is the conservation of critical habitat, including the sky, creating a natural intersection with IDA’s focus on protecting the night from light pollution. 

As IDA joins forces with Audubon, we aim to expand and strengthen our efforts to return the night sky to a more natural state, creating opportunities for joint projects and collaboration among local Audubon and IDA chapters. This partnership will allow us to provide both our networks and the communities they serve with the tools and resources to protect the night sky for both birds and people.

The first of these projects seeks to protect millions of migratory birds as they head south this fall to their wintering grounds.

Across the United States in the spring and fall, the sight and sound of Canada geese flying overhead is a clear sign that bird migration is underway. Less visible are the millions of birds that travel while we are sleeping, in the dark, during the migration seasons. But according to the National Audubon Society,  70% of birds in North America migrate and more than 80% of them make their seasonal flights at night.

Many songbirds like warblers, thrushes, and sparrows are nocturnal migrators. Without the light of the sun, these travelers use the moon and the stars to navigate during their long journeys, which can span thousands of miles and traverse continents. Artificial light at night (ALAN) can disrupt bird migration in a variety of ways, including disorienting birds from their routes and causing collisions with buildings, resulting in millions of bird fatalities each year.

Lights Out Programs Across the US
Across the country, bird lovers, conservationists, and amateur astronomers are working together to help birds safely migrate between their seasonal homes. Inspired by the FLAP program in Canada, advocacy organizations are working together to encourage individuals and businesses to participate in Lights Out Programs, which help participants learn about the effects of ALAN on migrating birds and take action to reduce light pollution. The National Audubon Society established its first Lights Out Program in Chicago in 1999 and keeps a growing list of over thirty active Lights Out Programs in the United States.

In some locations, the program is a joint effort between regional IDA and Audubon chapters. With Audubon’s commitment to birds and conservation and IDA’s dedication to reducing light pollution, it’s a strong, natural partnership that draws on the expertise of both nonprofit organizations. Successful Lights Out Programs in Bend, Oregon, Flagstaff, Arizona, and St. Louis, Missouri are run as collaborations between IDA and Audubon chapters. In Salt Lake City, Utah, a Lights Out Program is promoted by Tracy Aviary, a local conservation group.

These partnerships are growing into larger collaborations like Lights Out Heartland, which is bringing together more than a half dozen organizations from Missouri and Kansas toward the same vision, according to Don Ficken, president of IDA Missouri. Together, the groups work to educate the public about the ways that light pollution can endanger migrating birds, encouraging individuals and organizations to modify their use of artificial lights at night, especially during peak bird migration periods.

Take Action to Help Migrating Birds

According to Connie Sanchez, Bird-friendly Buildings Coordinator at National Audubon Society, Lights Out Programs typically consist of three elements: awareness, engagement, and advocacy. Many of these Lights Out Programs also involve a pledge, like the one published by Portland Audubon. Pledges usually involve a commitment to take actions like shielding outdoor lights, turning off ALAN during peak bird migration periods, turning off unnecessary indoor lighting, and contacting local decision-makers to advocate for bird-friendly lighting ordinances. 

This national effort is beginning to see success in cities like Chicago, Illinois, where over 100 buildings have been involved. In New York, New York, buildings like the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center participate in annual Lights Out Programs, and state-owned and state-managed buildings have been turning off lights at night during migration periods since 2015. Also in New York City, volunteers help count birds caught in the beams of light projected each year during the 9/11 tribute, contributing valuable data to help scientists understand the impact ALAN has on birds. The research team working at the 9/11 tribute site has found that turning the light beams off for just 20 to 30 minutes can dramatically reduce the number of birds in the area. 

While Audubon says that nearly 50% of the United States is affected by light pollution, bright lights in big cities are especially problematic for migrating birds. Cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia attract migrating birds with their skyglow, according to a recent study published in Ecology Letters. These cities distract migrating birds from their routes, causing the birds to burn valuable energy as they stray from their flight paths, reducing their chances of finding food at their stopover places and sometimes leading to collisions with bright, high-rise buildings. Birds are often left weak and vulnerable to predators after these unnecessary visits to bright cities. 

No matter where you live, there are plenty of things you can do to help nocturnal migrators like vireos, gnatcatchers, and flycatchers safely find their way between their seasonal homes. If there’s a Lights Out Program in your region, consider making the pledge to help birds travel safely during peak migration periods. Complete
FLAP’s BirdSafe self-assessment for your home and make some small changes to reduce the chances that birds will be attracted to the windows and lights of your residence, like turning off unnecessary lights, keeping indoor lights indoors, and following IDA’s Lighting Principles for Responsible Outdoor Lighting for any outdoor lights. Expand your impact beyond your home by starting a Lights Out Program in your area, or writing to elected officials and building managers to encourage them to get involved and take action to benefit migrating birds while saving on energy costs. There are dozens of simple actions we can take to make the night sky safer for millions of birds who travel back and forth between their nesting and wintering grounds.