#bioPGH Blog: Lights Out for Birds!
Oct 13

#bioPGH Blog: Lights Out for Birds!

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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Birds of Passage
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1858

Black shadows fall
From the lindens tall,
That lift aloft their massive wall
Against the southern sky;

And from the realms
Of the shadowy elms
A tide-like darkness overwhelms
The fields that round us lie.

But the night is fair,
And everywhere
A warm, soft vapor fills the air,
And distant sounds seem near,

And above, in the light
Of the star-lit night,
Swift birds of passage wing their flight
Through the dewy atmosphere.

I hear the beat
Of their pinions fleet,
As from the land of snow and sleet
They seek a southern lea.

I hear the cry
Of their voices high
Falling dreamily through the sky,
But their forms I cannot see.

O, say not so!
Those sounds that flow
In murmurs of delight and woe
Come not from wings of birds.

They are the throngs
Of the poet's songs,
Murmurs of pleasures, and pains, and wrongs,
The sound of winged words.

This is the cry
Of souls, that high
On toiling, beating pinions, fly,
Seeking a warmer clime,

From their distant flight
Through realms of light
It falls into our world of night,
With the murmuring sound of rhyme.


Have you ever noticed how frequently birds appear in historical literature? Epic poems, ancient religious texts, and even the prehistoric Paleolithic art from the times before the written word all document humanity’s fascination with our feathered neighbors – particularly, their ability to fly. There is something special in this particular piece of writing above that I wanted to highlight, though: the element of nighttime flight.

Fall migration is well underway for our feathered friends, and Pennsylvania has already seen quite a few nights of high traffic in the skies. Though we may notice the geese who seem to loudly and honkingly announce their arrival and departure, we often don’t notice our smaller songbirds making their way south until we realize they haven’t been to our feeders in a few weeks. That is because many actually migrate at night. This may seem counterintuitive, but long-distance night time travel actually has many benefits for birds. Wind conditions are usually more favorable for long flights, and a number of birds use the stars for navigation. It is also presumed that night flight is safer for smaller birds as hawks and other bird predators are more likely to be diurnal, and it also seems that night flights keep the birds cooler as they expend tremendous amounts of energy on their journeys.

Though nocturnal road trips have their advantages, in the last several decades, birds have encountered new obstacles in their migrations: the bright lights and tall buildings of cities. Birds can’t properly interpret the reflections of windows, which means they don’t understand they are heading into a solid object. Additionally, they are attracted to the bright, yet confusing, lights of larger cities. This can have devastating results, like mass bird mortality events where hundreds of birds might hit windows overnight.

Luckily, though, many cities around the world have adopted variations of dark sky policies during peak migration times to reduce mass fatalities. Last year, in fact, Pittsburgh adopted a Dark Sky Lighting Ordinance to reduce light pollution and lower energy costs while still maintaining light for safety. This will mean retrofitting old lights and planning ahead for the installation of new ones, but this will also contribute to healthier lighting patterns for city residents (e.g. less artificial lighting to interfere with sleep cycles) plus a distinct advantage to wildlife who also need the dark. So it’s a win-win! Human benefits in the areas of finances and human health, but it also makes traveling safer for birds since the dazzling lights of cities can be disorienting for migrating birds.

Phipps itself is joining in the protection of traveling birds by keeping our own lights down or off during peak migration.

“We have started already with shutting off the Architecture lights at 10 p.m. each night,” says Pete Thomson, director of facilities. “All other lights are already shutting off at 7 p.m. on all non-event nights.”

Is There Anything Else We Can Do to Help Migrating Birds?
Yes! We share our lands and skies with our wild neighbors, so it’s important to be a good neighbor. Here are a few things we call can do!

Keep Cats Indoors – The single biggest, directly human-caused threat to birds is an outdoor cat. Depending on the estimate, outdoor cats kill 1-4 billion wild birds a year, but we can make a huge difference here by spaying/neutering pet cats and keeping them indoors. This helps prevent unwanted kittens (and perpetuating feral cat populations) and it keeps Duchess and Mr. Fluffles just a little bit safer themselves.

Preventing Window Strikes – Birds can’t process the reflective sight of a window like we can, which means window strikes (birds literally flying into windows) is one of their biggest conservation threats. And it’s not just high-rises that can be a problem; any window can be tricky to a bird. However, we can help by making windows more visible to birds! BirdSafe Pittsburgh has a number of suggestions, including adding some fun décor like cut-outs to your windows, applying films or decals, or even selecting bird-friendly glass.

Take Action on Climate Change - Many bird species have already begun changing their migratory behaviors due to climate change (as we mentioned in the beginning, humans have been fascinated by birds for a long time; it makes for good record keeping!) We can talk about climate change in our communities and take some small steps with big impact to help keep our planet healthy for future generations!

So let's all pitch in a bit to keep our birds a little bit safer on their annual journey! It's kind of exciting to think how much of a positive difference we really can make, isn't it?

Continue the Conversation: Share your nature discoveries with our community by posting to Twitter and Instagram with hashtag #bioPGH, and R.S.V.P. to attend our next Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting.

Images: Pexels, public domain