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Bird Conservationists Push for “Lights Out Columbus” Campaign
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Some Columbus bird conservationists hope to reduce the number of birds that die from striking Downtown buildings on their way to breeding grounds in the northern United States and Canada. Experts say turning out the lights at night can help.
â€œSo you want to start by filling out the data sheet. Number of volunteers. Thereâ€™s two of us,” Amanda Conover, a bird conservationist, told Sarah Reynolds, an Ohio State ornithology club member, at Front and Spring Streets.
Itâ€™s mid-March and just before sun up on the first day of spring migration. Theyâ€™re out for the first of about two dozen trips to search for dead or injured songbirds that have struck Downtown buildings on their way to northern breeding grounds. Their first stop: 230 West Street near the Arena Grand Theatre.
Itâ€™s unseasonably warm, and budding trees host birds that whistle their morning songs.
â€œSo now basically weâ€™re going to walk the perimeter of the building â€¦And then if we find one weâ€™ll stop and fill out our collision report form. OK,” the women said.
Conover coordinates the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative. She is spearheading a â€œLights Out Columbusâ€ campaign. The campaign started in Chicago where skyscrapers and tall buildings were the first in the U.S. to dim the lights at night during fall and spring migration. The efforts are designed to reduce the number of birds that strike buildings or circle until they drop from exhaustion.
Weâ€™ll come back to Conover and her efforts a little later. But first, a brief history lesson on â€œLights Outâ€:
About 30 years ago, scientists with Chicagoâ€™s Field Museum thought the buildings along Lake Michigan might be a source for bird specimens for their collection. So they began checking a convention center during migration periods. Researchers found fewer dead birds when the buildingâ€™s lights were turned off or dimmed.
Field Museum ecologist Doug Stotz said scientists began to track the number of dead birds more closely.
â€œTurning the lights off reduced the kill by about 80 percent,” Stotz said.
Songbirds fly around 1,000 feet or so, the same height as many skyscrapers. And fog can force them lower. The light from skyscrapers also draws in.
â€œMy feeling is probably any large building in the Chicago area, large skyscraper type building, could kill a 1,000 or more,” he said.
About three billion songbirds migrate through North America each year. And ornithologists estimate â€“ on the low end â€“ about 100 million birds die from building strikes annually. Thatâ€™s about three percent of the total population.
Stotz said songbirds wonâ€™t go extinct tomorrow because of building strikes. Their biggest threat is habitat loss. But he said, â€œIf there is something that is already under pressure from other causes, and the big one being habitat loss, then the additional mortality from window kills potentially could be an issue for them.â€
One of these songbirds threatened by building strikes is the Kirtlandâ€™s Warbler. The Ohio Department of Natural Resourcesâ€™ Jim McCormac said itâ€™s likely the entire Kirtland population flies straight through Columbus on its way to and from the Bahamas. There arenâ€™t very many of these songbirds.
â€œThere are only about 3,000 birds thatâ€™s it. And so every one of those that strikes a tower, if that happens, itâ€™s a mini tragedy, really,” McCormac said.
And itâ€™s those mini-tragedies Amanda Conover, an Ohio bird conservationist, wants to prevent. Thatâ€™s why through June, Conover and volunteers will collect dead and injured birds around a select group of Downtown buildings. Theyâ€™ll also measure how much light the building emits. So far, Conover said, most people sheâ€™s approached about the survey have been receptive.
â€œTheyâ€™ve been supportive of our project and interested to know what we find, and interested to know, as far as the light emissions go, where they can cut back, how they can incorporate safety while still being able to reduce their energy costs. And, of course, being able to help birds as well,” she said.
Conover admits a â€œLights Outâ€ program would take some adjustments. Perhaps cleaning crews would have to work during the day; security guards might have to switch lights on and off.
But Lisa Morris, who is executive director of the Ohio School Employees Retirement System, said the changes can be worked out. The SERS building has had its own â€œLights Outâ€ program since 2007. Morris, who had noticed dead birds around the building before, was on her way home one night when she drove past the building.
â€œIt was very lit up, like a Christmas tree. And I thought, â€˜Why are we doing this?â€™”
Through research, Morris discovered â€œLights Out Chicago,â€ â€œLights Out New York,â€ â€œLights Out Boston.â€ And a light bulb went off. Since turning out the lights at night, she said the SERS building has saved 15 percent on its energy costs.
â€œIf New York City can do this and do it successfully, then Columbus, Ohio can do it,” Morris said.
With backing from other buildings like SERS, and hard data, Conover hopes building managers will come on board. And she also plans to tie it in with this yearâ€™s bicentennial.
â€œBecause thereâ€™s a green initiative associated with that we think this program could really fit well with that so,” Conover said.
Stay tuned, the skyline of Columbus could look very dark this fall.