Story updated October 17, 2019, with a second statement from the NASCAR Hall of Fame (see bottom)
The towering windows of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, were as illuminated as always last night, casting the paved entrance in a bright glow. This lighting made it easy to see the hundreds of small bodies littering the pavement: Chimney Swifts rendered immobile by head-on collisions with glass. As onlookers watched, more birds collided with the windows and tumbled to the ground.
The incident was captured on video by bystander Hollie Cameron. In the video, she marvels at the number of casualties as dozens of birds lie motionless in front of the building.
“This is not okay,” she says to a building security guard also watching the scene unfold. “There’s something wrong with them.” The security guard responds that the collisions had been occurring for nearly an hour.
Charlotte Police first responded to the incident, followed by Carolina Waterfowl Rescue (CWR), which transported the birds to their rehabilitation center. According to a post on CWR’s Facebook page, a total of 310 birds were transported to their rehabilitation facility overnight. Of those, 97 were dead on arrival, nine were euthanized, and 103 have serious injuries, like broken legs and wings. Another 102 swifts are stunned and likely to recover in several days.
Chimney Swifts eat only insects, and the injured birds will need to be hand-fed worms until they heal and regain enough strength to eat on their own, the rescue wrote on Facebook. CWR has already put out calls for donations and volunteers to assist with the outsize effort.
“It was something I’ve never seen before; it didn’t feel real watching it,” Cameron told Audubon. “They came as a flock, and many died on impact. But some of the birds woke up, flew and tried again to hit the building. Many died the second time.”
John Rowden, senior director of community conservation at the National Audubon Society, says this behavior was likely a result of confusion and fear. “These birds are just panicked, they are terrified, and light is something that is generally a positive thing to move toward,” he says. “They’re really just trying to get out of that situation.”
Bird strikes are a frequent occurrence in urban areas like Charlotte, where reflective windows and external lighting can confuse birds and lead to head-on collisions. But the incident has puzzled bird experts, who can only speculate as to why such a large group of Chimney Swifts, which typically sleep at night and fly during the day, were on the move after 9 p.m. on Tuesday.
“They were out past their bedtime,” says Kim Brand, senior network manager at Audubon North Carolina. “That could have been because they couldn’t find a suitable chimney to sleep in.” Rowden adds that the flock may have found a place to spend the night, but then was disturbed after dark and forced to relocate. “The chimneys that they’re roosting in might be active chimneys,” he says.
Lights Out Charlotte, a group run by Mecklenburg Audubon Society in the Charlotte metro area, works with volunteers to document bird-strike incidents. Until this incident, only one Chimney Swift strike had ever been reported in the city, says Brand. The group also advocates for bird-friendly practices like turning off urban lights at night—but so far have found limited success.
“Our volunteers in Charlotte with Mecklenburg Audubon have struggled to get building owners and managers to take them seriously and take action,” Brand says. “I think in Charlotte it’s a matter of people being very proud of their skyline. They have a lot of skyscrapers that were designed to have colored lights on the top of them, so the tops of these buildings are very showy.”
Audubon North Carolina is asking the NASCAR Hall of Fame to begin turning their lights out at night, and to continue doing so until migration season ends on November 15th. In the meantime, Audubon volunteers will head out into the city tonight and play swift callings to draw any other birds away from the building and toward safer roosts.
In a statement to Audubon magazine, the NASCAR Hall of Fame did not comment on lighting or other building practices that might have drawn the birds to their deaths.
“We are saddened by this very unusual and unfortunate event, and are very appreciative of the professionalism and response of our City partners who assisted last night," wrote Karen Brand, communications director for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority in an email to Audubon magazine. (Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority manages marketing for a number of regional attractions, including the NASCAR Hall of Fame.) "We are extremely grateful to Charlotte City Services, the Animal Control division of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and Carolina Waterfowl Rescue for their prompt response and for handling the situation with great care and compassion."
NASCAR has not released an official statement. Carolina Waterfowl Rescue was not available for comment; they are currently caring for some 200 Chimney Swifts along with over 1,000 other animals.
“Chimney Swifts are not your ordinary bird,” the group said in a Facebook post on Wednesday afternoon. “Losing one swift is a tragedy, losing hundreds is horrible.”
October 17, 2019, 10:15 a.m.: Updated statement from the NASCAR Hall of Fame, sent by Karen Brand, communications director for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority:
"We welcome the opportunity to meet with representatives from The Audubon Society and learn what may be the root cause of this regrettable incident. The NASCAR Hall of Fame Plaza is a public space that is frequented well into the night, and evening events are a critical component of the NASCAR Hall’s success. Finding a balance between operations and safety is our goal. After learning more, we are willing to evaluate potential adjustments that we hope would mitigate future occurrences. Following the conclusion of a scheduled event at the Hall tonight, we will reduce lighting to a minimal level. Continued dialogue to address concerns regarding this matter is important to us."