Lights Out for Migratory Birds in Louisiana

LWF has a large contingent of birders among its members, including several affiliate National Audubon chapters and independent birding clubs. Several years ago we formed an Avian Conservation Committee to discuss and address the status of non-game birds that spend our winters in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, and that return in the spring to nest and raise young here or further north, then go back south in the fall. Our incoming migration across the Gulf and up the coast of Texas is concentrated mainly in April and May, while the fall reverse migration is a little more spread out, encompassing the last week or two of August, September, October, and early November.

These neo-tropical migrants include a wide variety of species that are eagerly sought out by birders—warblers, finches, thrushes, flycatchers, swallows, and sparrows. Destinations on our Louisiana coast (Grand Isle and Cameron Parish) and all the way down the Texas Gulf coast are popular spots for birders to converge in the spring and fall. Many of these birders have noticed declining numbers of many species. A study published in 2019 concluded that our North American bird populations collectively have fallen by 29% since 1970! The reasons for this shocking statistic are many, and vary by species, but a significant factor is mortality from bird collisions with buildings. These collisions occur during the night when birds become disoriented by our heavily-lighted urban areas with bright lights and reflective glass. The lighting coupled with certain weather conditions, especially wind speed and direction and periods of fog and low cloud cover, can create episodes of large bird kills in addition to the “routine” daily kills of a few birds here and there. In one well documented case in 2017, a single office
building in Galveston, Texas, killed over 400 birds in a single night.

In the big picture of the 29% decline in bird populations, building collisions are estimated to cause between 385 million and a billion bird deaths each year, and are believed to be the third largest cause of bird population declines, behind only habitat loss (inclusive of climate change) and predation by cats.

The problem is not confined to large, well-lit office and industrial buildings. My personal residence in a wooded suburban neighborhood in Baton Rouge (Greenwell Springs) has killed several birds in the past ten years, most recently a wood thrush which is one of the species that has been most drastically affected by population decline, estimated at 60% during the period when the more general decline was half that. This species is one that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has categorized as being “of conservation concern,” meaning that this species with its incredibly melodious song could be in danger of falling into endangered status if the trend is not reversed.

The bird deaths in Texas prompted several conservation organizations to organize a “Lights Out Texas” campaign designed to darken the landscape during the spring and fall migrations in order to reduce bird deaths. Laura Bush, a lifelong birder, was honorary chair of this project which now engages hundreds of Texas birders in the spring and fall, seeking to identify problematical structures in cities and to ask owners/managers to modify their lighting. Other American cities that straddle major migration routes are also initiating campaigns to lower or turn off lights to help stem the carnage, with public buildings leading the way to save both birds’ lives and the wasted energy of excessive night lighting. Campaigns to observe “lights out” generally encourage buildings to darken between 11 pm and 6 am. LWF has initiated an effort to create awareness of this problem in Louisiana.

Individuals have a role to play in reducing bird deaths from building collisions. At your home keep exterior lights off or in a downwardly directly position as much as possible from 11 pm to daylight. Turn off interior lights that are behind large windows near vegetation, water sources, or bird feeders (or just close your blinds or curtains). During the day, use of decals of birds of prey can also be helpful if placed on or hanging in front of large windows that have killed birds. If you work in an office building, observe the nighttime lighting of the building and if it appears excessive, talk to the building manager, or ask your boss to do so. In many cases, you’ll find that the excessive lighting is either inadvertent or just a bad habit from the days when energy wasn’t as precious as it now is.

So, now back to the question of the efficacy of individual action. My house has killed at least five birds in the past ten years, including that wood thrush that’s a species on the conservation concern list. There are currently about 125,000 owner-occupied housing units in EBR Parish, and if my house’s kill rate of .5 birds per year is assumed for all such units in the parish, the annual death toll at single-family residences before conservation measures is 62,500 individual birds! At our house we have taken steps toward elimination of this source of bird population decline and we urge others to do so.

Yes, a bird here . . . .a bird there . . . .a small effort by everyone can slow or maybe even turn around the decline in our migratory birds. We ask our members and all Louisiana property owners to join us in a collective effort by embracing “lights out.”

Report by Charles Williams, 2nd VP for Louisiana Wildlife Federation, LWF Avian Conservation Committee

For those who wish to delve further into this topic, I recommend the following sources:

  • LWF’s resolution recommending “lights out to save migrating birds” passed earlier this year.
  • The Summer 2023 issue of National Wildlife (a publication of the National Wildlife Federation) contains an article—“Needing the Night”– on the problem of “light pollution.” In addition to the impact on migrating birds, light pollution has adverse effects on many species including monarch butterflies, bats, sea turtles, and fireflies.
  • Laura Bush’s op-ed piece in the Dallas Morning News of March 14, 2021. Mrs. Bush grew up in Midland, Texas, and has been a birder all her life. She was the initial honorary chair of the Texas Lights Out program.
  • The September 2019 article from the on-line Science that identified the full scope of the avian decline problem, quantifying the North American decline at three billion birds (29%) since 1970.
  • The USFWS’s Birds of Conservation Concern 2021, a report on species that have suffered disproportionate declines and could fall into “threatened” or even “endangered” status if the trend is not reversed.
  • Bird Cast tracking and information.
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