For the Birds: Lights Out Philly

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

A bit of good news for the to celebrate on this sunny morning on the cusp of spring.

I’m writing this from our hideaway on Point Lookout, Long Island, looking out through a picture window festooned with a bird silhouette, to deter other birds from crashing to their deaths into an obstacle they do not see.

My husband and I have retreated to this haven to wait out the pandemic.

It’s a bright sunny day here today – ideal weather for our daily beach walk this afternoon. The last week has been unusually warm, signalling spring is on the way, after a snowy, icy winter that reminded me of the New Jersey winters of my childhood – although it’s not been not quite as crisp as winters during the many years I spent in Boston.

The news I report was especially cheering to me, an avid birdwatcher. From The Guardian, Philadelphia calls for ‘lights out’ after skyscrapers cause hundreds of bird deaths:

The lights of Philadelphia may not shine as bright in the coming weeks as a coalition in the City of Brotherly Love tries to prevent millions of migrating birds that pass through twice a year from slamming into skyscrapers and crashing to the sidewalk.

Bird Safe Philly on Thursday announced the Lights Out Philly initiative, a voluntary program in which many external and internal lights in buildings are turned off or dimmed at night during the spring and fall.

The problem of artificial lights attracting birds to their deaths in the city is not new. “We have specimens in the academy’s ornithology collection from a kill that happened when lights were first installed on Philadelphia’s city hall tower in 1896,” said Jason Weckstein, the associate curator of ornithology at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences.

The coalition, which includes Audubon Mid-Atlantic, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club and two local Audubon chapters, formed after the city’s largest mass-collision event in 70 years was reported last October. Hundreds of dead birds were found around the city.

“Conditions were perfect for a heavy migratory flight and imperfect given that there was a low ceiling of clouds and rain,” Weckstein said. “That in combination with Philly’s bright city lights was a disaster for many fall migrant birds winging their way south.”

Not only do night lights lure birds to crash into windows, they also interfere with their ability to navigate. As per The Guardian:

Birds navigate during migration using celestial cues and when they cannot see stars on a cloudy night they get confused by bright city lights, according to experts. Windows pose a problem, according to Weckstein, because birds might see a reflection of trees or the sky.

And lest you underestimate the carnage to which artificial night lighting contributes, also from The Guardian:

Scientists estimate between 365 million and 1 billion birds are killed by collisions with buildings or other outdoor structures in the US every year and those crashes are taking a toll on some species.

Common yellowthroats, white-throated sparrows, gray catbirds and ovenbirds are the most common victims in Philadelphia, experts said, and those species are also threatened by the climate crisis and other predators.

“The ovenbird and the black-throated blue warbler are among the hundreds of bird species that are now at an increased risk of extinction in North America because of climate change,“ said Keith Russell with Audubon Mid-Atlantic. “But many of these species also face the additional threat of colliding with buildings.”

Brightly-lit skyscrapers are only one of many hazards for birds in flight. Others include wind turbines. Night lighting also disturbs birds’ circadian rhythms.

The Philly initiative set me to mulling why we don’t switch off blazing lights more often, not only because they disturb birds, but because they waste energy. Even here in sleepy Point Lookout, streetlights blazon throughout the night. Why?

I grew up in a small New Jersey town, sans streetlights. If one needed to walk somewhere at night, one did so by moonlight.

I suppose, on a particularly dark night, a flashlight or a headlamp could light the way.

The Philly program is voluntary: Why not make it mandatory?

Note I’m not suggesting cities do away with their street lighting entirely, as I understand the need for that in crowded places. But we don’t need to light up empty office towers.

Philly is only the latest city to act to protect passing birds by switching off the lights:

From The Guardian:

The National Audubon Society, along with partners, established the first Lights Out program in 1999 in Chicago. Philadelphia joins 33 other cities including New York, Boston, Atlanta and Washington DC.

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  1. Alex Cox

    Some other cities are making an effort to reduce excess Illumination. The newer, outlying suburbs of Tucson have no street lights.

    1. Larry Y

      Tucson is near Kitt Peak observatory, who has worked with surrounding communities to control light pollution.

      1. Arizona Slim

        In the city, we have street lights. But they have to be dark sky compatible.

        That being said, it’s wise to take a flashlight on nighttime perambulations near the Arizona Slim Ranch.

        1. Michael Ismoe

          If, for no other reason, than to throw at the coyote who has been following you for two blocks.

  2. heresy101

    There are some cities in CA (San Jose) that when they made the conversion to LED street lights that made them smart street lights . They added a city sponsored wi-fi network to the street lights so they can individually control a dimming timer on them. They dim way down at a certain time and turn back full when there is motion on the ground. This avoids annoying street lights shining in your window all night and saves energy. “San Jose’s street lighting bill ” was ” nearly $4 million a year.”

    “Want to dim lights 30 percent from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., when Lick’s telescopes are most active? No problem. It’s staying lighter later, so reset those lights with the flip of a switch. Want to brighten the lights on a moonless night? Sure. Want them to blink during an emergency or go on and off with traffic and pedestrians? Can do.”

    1. mary jensen

      Toronto as well, first city in the world to “do something”:

      And V. Nabokov, way back in 1962:

      “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
      By the false azure in the windowpane;
      I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I
      Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”

      – the four opening lines of “Pale Fire”.

  3. bassmule

    Turn off the skyscrapers, sure. Remember when Philadelphia had a building height ordinance?

    Street lights, I dunno. When driving, I need some kind of light to see pedestrians waiting at crosswalks at night. And I would not want to live in a neighborhood where motion detectors would cause them to go on and off all night.

    Beyond that, anything that reduces light pollution at night is great. I’m trying to imagine Times Square shutting the lights at midnight….

  4. Bob

    Street lights are a cash cow for the utilities not to mention that they are an excellent base load to keep those turbines spinning
    during the off hours.
    Trouble is it kills the birds

    The coming widespread use of LED lighting with dimming and instant on capabilities will change all of this.

  5. Bee

    Thanks for posting this piece and the link to The Guardian article, Jerri-Lynn. Some organizations are working hard to change this. American Bird Conservancy has an in-house team working to reduce collisions: There are also groups such as that have been working for years to get lights off, streetlights pointing downward not our or up (in the way that sunlight and moonlight do), and other related artificial lighting concerns.

    And this Chicago organization gets out there at 4 am during migratory season to patrol the base of high-rises to save the birds they can and collect and count the bodies of those they can’t: While the corporate entities that own these structures send someone out to try to collect the bodies first so no one sees.

    When I think about these tiny creatures, weighing maybe an ounce, flying thousands of miles through all sorts of dangers to migrate spring and summer, smashing into these monuments to capitalist egos, well, what can I say. I’m a retired architecture history prof and I think about these things.

  6. Moe

    Really thought I was going to finally get the Howie Roseman takedown the world has been waiting for on the basis of this headline

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