Sunday, September 2, 2012

Lights Out for Birds

Indigo Bunting, tower-killed in downtown Columbus, Ohio

Turning out skyscraper lights saves migrating songbirds

Columbus Dispatch

Sunday September 2, 2012
Jim McCormac

More than 420 species of birds have been found in Ohio, but most aren’t permanent residents. More than 300 species show up annually; the rest are rarities with few recorded sightings. This core group of 315 or so species is of greatest conservation concern within Ohio. These are the species that breed here or depend on Ohio’s habitats as way stations on much longer journeys.

Our annual avian visitors include 125 species strictly passing through the Buckeye State. About 170 species nest here but spend the rest of the year elsewhere. By far the smallest core group of Ohio’s birds is the permanent residents. Only about 22 species are largely nonmigratory and with us year-round. This latter group includes familiar feeder birds such as the Carolina chickadee, downy woodpecker and white-breasted nuthatch.

Ohio plays host to vast numbers of migratory birds, and during spring and fall, the passage of feathered journeyers spikes into the millions. The largest group of long-haul migrants is the songbirds: flycatchers, thrushes, warblers and others. Their ranks include colorful favorites such as the Baltimore oriole, indigo bunting, scarlet tanager and rose-breasted grosbeak. The songbird species that travel through our state winter in the Caribbean, Central America and South America and breed as far north as Alaska.

If they make it.

A songbird’s journey is fraught with peril. Most species migrate at night, for several reasons. Predators such as sharp-shinned hawks aren’t active; winds are often calmer; celestial objects play a role in many species’ orientation; and nighttime passages leave the day free to forage.

One of the greatest manmade hazards to migrant birds is the proliferation of skyscrapers that rise into their flight paths. New York’s 1,454-foot-tall Empire State Building was topped out in 1931 and remained the world’s tallest building for the next 40 years. Its construction sparked a boom in high-rises, and today North America’s largest cities bristle with behemoths. In Columbus, 17 buildings exceed 300 feet — well into the flight paths of migrant songbirds.

Night-flying birds now must run a gantlet of big buildings. One of the big problems is the lights that are either left on or used to illuminate the structures. Birds are disoriented by artificial lights and tend to fly toward them and strike the building. An estimated 550 million birds die annually from building strikes. Such incidents are a major contributor to the diminishing numbers of many songbird species. To put this carnage into perspective, 550 million birds equals the entire collective populations of our 14 most common warbler species. Exact numbers aren’t known, but scores of birds perish from building strikes in Columbus each year.

The solution is simple: Turn out the lights! The Lights Out campaign began in the 1990s in Chicago and has been embraced by most managers of tall buildings there. Lights Out coordinators recommend dimming the lights during spring and fall peak migratory periods. Doing so has drastically reduced bird deaths. In Columbus, the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative and the Grange Insurance Audubon Center are spearheading Lights Out and have secured the cooperation of managers of several of Columbus’ tallest buildings. It would be great to see even more tall buildings go dim when songbirds are passing through.

To learn more about Lights Out Columbus, contact Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative coordinator Amanda Conover at 614-432-8489 or send email to

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

Baltimore Oriole, tower-killed in downtown Columbus, Ohio

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