Lights Out for the Texas Skyscraper That Caused Hundreds of Songbird Deaths

With input from local wildlife groups and birders, the owners are shutting down the lights and turning up the dialogue around bird-friendly practices.

Last night the 32-story American National Insurance skyscraper in Galveston, Texas, elected not to turn its floodlights on for the first time in decades. Typically, 20 white beams are used to illuminate the plaza each evening. But yesterday, it remained dim, save for a few office windows and a string of green safety lights that run along the tip of the tower. Why? To save birds.

One week ago, 395 warblers, grosbeaks, and other passerines flew into the dazzling floodlights and collided with the building’s windows. Only three individuals were rescued the following morning. The survivors were transported to a wildlife hospital via the Galveston Bay Injured Bird Response Team, which is run by Audubon Texas and other coastal conservation groups.

The floodlights will remain off for the rest of the season, says Bruce LePard, the senior vice president of American National Insurance. Leaders from the company met with representatives from Houston Audubon and the Galveston County Audubon Group yesterday afternoon, and will be working with them and with officials from the City of Galveston to draw up preventative measures before fall migration. One potential idea for One Moody Plaza includes adding a pulse on the green safety bulbs to make them less disorienting to birds. Meanwhile, the entire city might adopt a Lights Out initiative. Houston Audubon is also designing an email alert system for local building owners that will let them know when flight conditions are risky for birds, either due to inclement weather or low visibility. These warnings could prompt them to go dark for the night.

“The Texas coast is the first land these migrants encounter after crossing the Gulf of Mexico. So right away they’re looking for habitat,” says Richard Gibbons, conservation manager for Houston Audubon. Some of those exhausted birds might seek shelter in the city, which is about as safe as a demolition zone. Beyond slamming into windows, they can get caught in fishing lines, contract parasites, and die from starvation.

But that doesn’t make the region any less important for birds. The relationship goes both ways, too: Birding is a major cornerstone in the coastal economy, Gibbons says. “It’s a big part of the natural heritage. People care for and love the wildlife here.” In fact, many of the individuals who work in the American National Insurance building are birders, and they spoke up after last week’s collisions. “It helped rally our employees around the cause,” LePard says. “We really want to mitigate this from ever happening again and be better corporate citizens.” The plan for doing that may still be in its infant stages—but for anyone who looks out at Galveston tonight, they’ll see that the horizon’s already changing.

* * *

Audubon's work makes a difference because it's based on scientific research and community action. Support our conservation efforts by making a donation today.