Lights Out For the Birds

Lights Out For the Birds
We’re coming to migration season, and it’s a dangerous time for the little songbirds.

Think about it. Despite weighing only a few ounces or grams, and being just a few inches or centimeters long, they do more exercise in a couple of months than most of us do in our lifetime. Let’s be honest, humans who are reading this. Do you have the stamina to fly 1000 miles over the course of a few weeks? If you don’t have wings or feathers (I don’t--that’s why I can type this!), could you walk or even bike that long? Most of us could not. Birds put even our iron men and women to shame.

During their migration, nothing is certain. Maybe the birds will find something good to eat at a certain spot--and maybe they won’t. Maybe that special thicket of brush they rested in last year will be there--and maybe it’s now luxury housing for senior citizens. Maybe they’ll be a hurricane or rainstorm. Or a cat. Or a kestrel or peregrine falcon. Or maybe they’ll just drop dead of a heart attack from all the exertion, as happened in front of my mother a few years ago. (The victim was a hermit thrush).

If the birds are going to South America, there is also the problem of rain forest destruction. Will their favorite wintering place be lush and green? Or slashed and burned? It’s a tough life for such a little bird.

Fortunately, New York City is doing its best to help the migrants. The New York City Audubon Society is sponsoring a program called “Lights Out New York.” For two months (September and October), the lights of certain buildings (including the Empire State Building) will be turned off at midnight, so that the birds can migrate in darkness. The birds--including purple martins, juncos and kinglets--had been crashing into lit windows and falling to their death, for reasons that are not well understood. Perhaps they were attracted to the lights inside these office complexes, thinking it was the sun. Or perhaps they see very well in the dark (birds do have superior vision), and the lights blinded them,as a camera flash will temporarily blind a human being. For whatever reason, the Audubon Society estimates that 90,000 birds are killed in New York City each year from window collisions.

Even if you don’t live in New York City, you can help the birds by turning off as many lights as you can between the hours of midnight and dawn. Of course, use your common sense. Any lights that are needed for safety should be left on. You do not want to create a dark alley where somebody might be mugged (or worse). But any purely decorative lights should be turned off at 12:00 AM. If you are still up and about at that hour with the lights on, pull your blinds so the birds can’t see the light inside.

You might just save a life.

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