New York state going dark to save birds

By Matthew Hamilton


Albany: There is an unmistakable glow that illuminates the Albany skyline each night.

For tourists, the lights are an attraction to the largest city on the Hudson River north of Yonkers. For nocturnal migrating birds, it’s also an attraction — and that’s the problem.

The state is set to announce Monday that non-essential outdoor lighting at some state-run buildings across New York will be shut off in an effort to keep warblers, thrushes and other nighttime migrants from losing their way or, in extreme cases, ending their journeys with a thud. But remaining illuminated here will be state landmarks, including the state Capitol and the glass and concrete monolith Corning Tower, the state’s tallest building outside New York City, leaving hazards for avian travelers susceptible to fatal light attraction.

As the name suggests, birds that rely on constellations to navigate can become disoriented by outdoor lighting, leading to crashes before they reach their seasonal nesting place or forcing them to land after burning off energy trying to regain their bearings. “In a lot of artificial light, it causes problems,” State Museum Curator of Ornithology Jeremy Kirchman said. “They fly around in circles around skyscrapers or radio towers and television towers. As a result, a lot of them will crash.”

The state blackout will affect some buildings regionally and is scheduled to occur each day between 11 p.m. and dawn from April 15 through May 31 and Aug. 15 through Nov. 15, the periods in which the birds migrate.

Lights deemed essential for health or safety (walkways, work sites, etc.) will stay on. The initiative is in keeping with the Audubon Society’s Lights Out program.

While attraction to light would seem more common among winged insects, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 500 million to 1 billion birds are killed in the U.S. each year when they slam into windows, walls, floodlights or the ground.

“Bird migration is one of the incalculable wonders of nature,” Audubon New York Executive Director Erin Crotty said in a statement. “With spring migration under way, the state’s commitment to ‘Lights Out’ is an important step to increase their protection.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the state’s lights-out initiative, which coincides with the launch of the webpage, a simple step to protect migratory birds.

It’s not as if the “simple step” is one of a kind, though. The Audubon Society’s New York City chapter has worked with the owners of iconic buildings such as Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building in Manhattan to cut down on lighting during migration season.

New York City is the state’s prime example of a trap for nocturnal migrating birds. The Albany areaisn’t nearly as dangerous.

Kirchman makes daily rounds at Empire State Plaza in search of birds that fell victim to the Corning Tower and four agency buildings overnight, though their numbers have decreased lately. Whether that’s because of a change in illumination or another factor isn’t clear.

“Last fall, I only found a half-dozen birds over the course of many, many weeks of making my morning walks,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a very big problem.”

But urban glow from shorter buildings, which the Capital Region has a far more abundant supply of, can also disorient birds,

“The light is the first line of defense that we can tackle,” New York City Audubon Society Director of Conservation and Science Susan Elbin said. “It really should be a no-brainer because you do save money, you save energy and you also save birds.”



Published in May/June 2015 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter