From the Magazine

Collateral Damage

Night-migrating songbirds fall from the sky when they collide with urban buildings. Some cities are switching off the lights to boost the birds’ chances of safe passage. 

Flying thousands of feet above ground at night is risky business, but songbirds take the gamble anyway. The opposite choice, traveling by day, through turbulent air and in plain view of predators, is even riskier. 

Still, experts estimate that each year in North America more than 100 million neotropical migrants perish in the darkness when they become confused by urban lights and collide with manmade structures. In response, Lights Out campaigns, run by Audubon and partner organizations, urge building owners to switch off the lights at night.

In the nation’s capital, Lights Out D.C. calls for the darkening of buildings between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. during peak migration periods in spring and fall. In the mornings volunteers travel a route that runs past a Senate office building, the D.C. Convention Center, and other brightly lit structures, gathering the fallen and tallying the carnage as they go.

From one pile of collected dead birds (above), Sam Droege, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, made a public art statement on Flickr. He laid the songbirds on sheets of brown craft paper, and then used a stepladder like a tripod to travel in a circle, snapping more than a dozen photos. Stitched together with panoramic software, the images combine to look like a nightmarish dreamcatcher. “All these dead birds are both disturbing and darkly beautiful,” Droege says. “My hope was to create something that was alluring, providing a door to education.”

Go to bird-friendly.audubon.org/lightsout to learn how you can start a Lights Out campaign in your town.