Lights Out Is a Turn-on for Birds

Programs across the continent help protect birds from colliding with buildings.

Many birds, particularly songbirds, migrate at night, navigating by the moon and stars. Mostly flying at altitudes below 2,000 feet, and even lower on foggy and rainy nights, they often become disoriented by brightly lit windows in tall buildings. The result is horrific: more than 100 million bird deaths in North America annually, and as many as 1,000 bird deaths per major structure, reports Massachusetts Audubon. In response, Audubon and its partners have organized Lights Out campaigns, urging buildings to hit the off-switch at night for bird safety.

In 1991 Toronto became the world’s first city to address urban bird collisions when it launched the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP). About a decade later Chicago became the first U.S. city to follow suit. Today, as the movement has picked up significant momentum, more than 20 North American metropolitan areas—ranging from major cities like Washington, D.C., to smaller ones like Winston-Salem, North Carolina—participate in similar programs. The programs vary, but they’re typically a collaboration between an Audubon chapter and local partners and involve convincing building managers and owners to join in by educating them about the benefits.

Many cities also provide online resources for bird-friendly and sustainable development. Toronto’s Bird Friendly Guidelines, for example, suggest using reflection-free glass and visual markers on buildings and outline how to use lights to optimize bird safety. Participation is voluntary, and Lights Out programs usually focus on getting buildings to take part between midnight and sunrise for several months a year during spring and fall migration, when the bulk of migrating birds are passing through.

“There are multiple reasons why Lights Out programs are valuable,” says Don Gorney, program manager for Lights Out Indianapolis. “It saves bird lives and also promotes energy conservation.”


Lights Out programs began to get popular in the United States about a decade ago. In fall 2001 Robbie Hunsinger, a freelance oboist turned bird advocate, attended a presentation in Chicago by the director of FLAP and immediately determined that she would do something about bird collisions and buildings. In 2002 Hunsinger founded the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors to raise awareness about bird collisions and also to collect dead and injured birds off the city’s streets (see “Pain in the Glass,” November-December 2008).

“I was very concerned about this, so I started contacting building managers myself and explaining that, ‘Hey, we’re finding a lot of dead birds at your building,’ ” says Hunsinger. “I made friends with doormen, sweepers, and building managers. My protocol for the program was that there were no bad feelings or angry confrontations with managers because they were working with us and allowing us on their property. One by one the buildings starting turning off their lights.” Hunsinger’s grassroots effort was a smashing success. By 2004 every building in Chicago taller than 60 stories hit the switch for night-migrating birds.

Hunsinger points out that her activism was built on a foundation laid by then-Mayor Richard Daley, who had set the stage for Lights Out Chicago by launching it in principle a few years before Hunsinger came along. “Mayor Daley got Lights Out all written up; they just needed someone to do this on the ground,” says Hunsinger, who even earned a bird-rehabilitation license in service to the cause and donated her cell phone number as the Bird Collision hotline. “It was like the perfect storm. People were just ready to help, and it was ready to go in Chicago.”

Today Chicago Bird Collision Monitors has more than 100 volunteers. Seven days a week, about a dozen of them take turns walking or biking the streets at sunrise to find dead or injured birds.

Because of Chicago’s location along the Mississippi Flyway and on Lake Michigan—“an unfortunate channel,” Hunsinger says—volunteers still see an incredibly high number of bird casualties. On just one September morning they found 270 injured birds and 320 dead birds, mostly white-throated sparrows, brown creepers, and golden-crowned kinglets, according to Annette Prince, who now directs Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. Other common casualties include ovenbirds, Nashville warblers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and hermit thrushes.

Still, it’s unclear what the casualty numbers really mean. “It’s hard to use bird strikes to measure program success. We actually find more birds today than we did in 2004 because we have more volunteers to cover a greater area,” explains Prince. “It’s doesn’t mean things are getting worse; it just means we have more outreach, and I think success is measured by the awareness we raise.” By that standard Chicago has clearly set a model for other cities to emulate.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other success stories. Take Lights Out in Minneapolis. Joanna Eckles, coordinator of Audubon Minnesota’s Project BirdSafe/Lights Out, started the program after she, like Hunsinger, heard a lecture by FLAP’s director. To raise architects’ awareness about bird collisions, she and her team have offered lunch-hour educational talks. They’ve also spread the word via the newsletter of the Minnesota Building Owners and Managers Association.

Some 60 private buildings in Minneapolis have come on board during spring and fall migrations. And last May 1 the University of Minnesota began administering both required and recommended bird safety construction guidelines, alongside other construction guidelines, to any new buildings that receive state bond money—a zoo, for instance, or a stadium or park building. One required guideline is that glass on upper floors of buildings must have visual markings to deter birds.

As in Chicago, Lights Out in both Minneapolis and St. Paul depend on a cadre of volunteers who walk mapped-out routes each morning, looking for bird casualties. Warblers and sparrows are the most commonly found species.

Also as in Chicago, statistics may be misleading. “Measuring the program effect is really a challenge because there are so many factors that aren’t controllable,” Eckles says. “You can test it by one problem building, but I think the real measure of success is in the awareness we have raised, like the state coming to us and asking us to put bird safety information in a state construction guideline. That’s huge.”


East Coast cities are also involved. Lights Out New York, for example, has been active since 2005. More than 90 of the city’s buildings have signed on, including such iconic properties as Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, and the Time Warner Center. “I think that Lights Out is really a win-win sort of solution,” says Adriana Palmer, coordinator of New York City Audubon’s Project Safe Flight. “It’s a clear benefit to the birds, but for the buildings, any time they are turning off lights they are also saving energy and money.”

Lights Out Boston offers yet another model. Its program was founded in the fall of 2008 by Massachusetts Audubon and Mayor Thomas Menino, and today more than 45 buildings participate, turning off both internal and decorative lights. Besides benefiting the birds, the program also helps Menino pursue his goal of decreasing Boston’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Other cities, from Paris to Santa Rosa, California (see “Dark Side of Light,” Field Notes, May-June 2013) have joined in, turning off their lights at night to save energy and help birds. In Houston companies, by becoming involved in the Lights Out program, are also supporting the city’s stated goal of becoming the U.S. “Energy Conservation Capital.” Then there’s Earth Hour, an international tradition that began in six years ago in Australia; for one hour every March, cities and residences around the world go dark to save energy. All told, 153 countries have participated.

On the other hand, the movement is growing more slowly in some cities than others. San Francisco’s Lights Out program, for example, started about four years ago under the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Although many buildings participated the first year, the chapter’s small staff and limited resources have prevented it from tracking bird mortality and assessing if the program is really paying off. This year the Lights Out people designed a logo—a silhouette of birds against a city sky—in hopes it will give the program a new educational push, says Ilana DeBare, Golden Gate Audubon’s communications director.

Lights Out Indianapolis, inspired by the success of Lights Out Chicago, was formed in 2009 by the Amos Butler Audubon Society. Although the program has enjoyed only modest success so far—just six buildings have signed up—things are looking up. “Since 2009 to 2012, we observed 1,299 bird strikes, counted by volunteers, and we demonstrated that certain buildings are problematic,” adds Gorney. “Now, with the help of the City of Indianapolis and the help of the Indianapolis Zoo, we are making big progress educating buildings on Lights Out and bird safety.” Above all, The Chase Tower, at 48 stories the city’s tallest building, is in compliance.

Other more creative approaches are gaining traction. For instance, Chicago is encouraging buildings to shut off lights in lobbies, especially those with interior foliage, which can attract birds. Other cities, including Minneapolis, are pushing for changes in the way buildings are built. Eckles and others would like to see architects consider bird safety the way they currently factor in such things as energy use and heat gain. “I’d like to have bird safety be a part of what we think of sustainable design,” she says.

Some have a loftier goal: cross-city collaboration. “What I would like to see is connectivity between programs, because if you think about it, these birds are making a huge trek through entire flyways,” says Eckles. “I would love to see us sharing strategies and solutions, getting nationwide legislation, and coordinating efforts.”

From all indications, the prospects for Lights Out programs look brighter than ever. “There was just a lot of goodwill, as nobody likes to see a dead or injured bird,” says Chicago’s Hunsinger. “We became on a first-name basis with doormen. Patagonia even donated organic cotton T-shirts for the volunteers. This has been just a beautiful human story.”