Bird Conservationists Push for “Lights Out Columbus” Campaign

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About 3,000 birds make up the Kirtland's Warbler population. ODNR's Jim McCormac said it’s likely the entire Kirtland population flies straight through Columbus on its way to and from the Bahamas. McCormac called it a "mini-tragedy" when one of these warbler's is killed from a building collision.(Photo: flickr: lgooch)
About 3,000 birds make up the Kirtland's Warbler population. ODNR's Jim McCormac said it’s likely the entire Kirtland population flies straight through Columbus on its way to and from the Bahamas. McCormac called it a "mini-tragedy" when one of these warbler's is killed from a building collision.(Photo: flickr: lgooch)

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.

“So you want to start by filling out the data sheet. Number of volunteers. There’s two of us,” Amanda Conover, a bird conservationist, told Sarah Reynolds, an Ohio State ornithology club member, at Front and Spring Streets.

It’s mid-March and just before sun up on the first day of spring migration. They’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.

It’s unseasonably warm, and budding trees host birds that whistle their morning songs.

“So now basically we’re going to walk the perimeter of the building …And then if we find one we’ll stop and fill out our collision report form. OK,” the women said.

Conover coordinates the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative. She is spearheading a “Lights Out Columbus” 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.

We’ll come back to Conover and her efforts a little later. But first, a brief history lesson on “Lights Out”:

About 30 years ago, scientists with Chicago’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 building’s lights were turned off or dimmed.

Field Museum ecologist Doug Stotz said scientists began to track the number of dead birds more closely.

“Turning 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.

“My 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 – on the low end – about 100 million birds die from building strikes annually. That’s about three percent of the total population.

Stotz said songbirds won’t go extinct tomorrow because of building strikes. Their biggest threat is habitat loss. But he said, “If 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.”

One of these songbirds threatened by building strikes is the Kirtland’s Warbler. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Jim McCormac said it’s likely the entire Kirtland population flies straight through Columbus on its way to and from the Bahamas. There aren’t very many of these songbirds.

“There are only about 3,000 birds that’s it. And so every one of those that strikes a tower, if that happens, it’s a mini tragedy, really,” McCormac said.

And it’s those mini-tragedies Amanda Conover, an Ohio bird conservationist, wants to prevent. That’s why through June, Conover and volunteers will collect dead and injured birds around a select group of Downtown buildings. They’ll also measure how much light the building emits. So far, Conover said, most people she’s approached about the survey have been receptive.

“They’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 “Lights Out” 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 “Lights Out” 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.

“It was very lit up, like a Christmas tree. And I thought, ‘Why are we doing this?’”

Through research, Morris discovered “Lights Out Chicago,” “Lights Out New York,” “Lights Out Boston.” 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.

“If 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 year’s bicentennial.

“Because there’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.

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