Three Ways You Can Help Migrating Birds This Fall

Migrants heading south face myriad man-made obstacles, but there are actions we can all take to save their lives.

The Blackburnian Warbler is a small songbird with a flame-orange head. The striking bird largely nests in the far Northeastern United States, around the Great Lakes, and into Canada, but when it’s time to head south, this neotropical migrant, which weighs less than an ounce, wings it all the way to the Andes Mountain in South America. Blackburnians have been making this trek for thousands of years, but over the past century, the odyssey has become increasingly treacherous. Now tall towers of glass and steel protrude into the sky; houses, roads, and concrete cover the once virgin landscape; and at night, the world can look like a neverending Lite Brite. All of these changes, in one way or another, pose deadly dangers to the Blackburnian and millions of other migrating songbirds every year, putting an abrupt end to their heroic journeys. 

It doesn't have to be this way. Though we might not be able to reverse human development, we can be proactive about preventing bird deaths that results from our man-made obstacles. Below are three ways you can personally make a difference. Birds are incredibly adaptive and resilient, but even a little effort on our part can help them go a long way—perhaps even to the Andes. 

Make Your Windows Obvious 

Anywhere from 100 million to 1 billion birds a year are estimated to die as a result of impacts with clear or reflective glass. Windows can confuse birds in a couple of ways. Sometimes the glass reflects the trees and surrounding landscape, causing the bird to think the reflection is just more of the natural world. Sometimes the window can make it appear that there is an open space on the other side. Either way, the result is often the same: a lethal impact. Preventing these strikes, however, is fairly easy.

For starters, putting decals on your windows can drastically reduce bird strikes. And because birds are used to darting through narrow spaces, make sure you use multiple decals close enough together to actually deter them (despite what you often see, just one or two in the middle of a window won't do). The gaps between each decal shouldn't be bigger than 2"x4" inches, or no larger than the space a sparrow would fly through. 

If colored decals don't appeal, you can use films with dots on them, strips of translucent tape, or opt for UV stickers, which are less apparent to the human eye but remain highly visible to birds (when applying them, still stick to the same spacing guidelines). You could also get a little creative, putting up streamers, beads, or making your own bird decorations that could also prevent strikes. And for the slackers out there, here’s something to feel good about: Dirty windows also reduce impacts. So next time you are starting to feel behind on your chores, give yourself a break. You'll also be giving one to the birds. 

Go Lights Out

Another easy way to prevent bird impacts is simply to keep your household or apartment lights off from dusk until dawn. Many birds that migrate during the night—the Blackburnian included—use the stars and moon to help guide their way. But now that the landscape below them twinkles with artificial light, birds can easily be confused. Studies suggest that up to a million birds a year can die because of light pollution. Sometimes the birds are attracted to or disoriented by the lights and run into a building or window. Other times they can get “trapped” by a city's glow or powerful beams, exhausting themselves as they continously circle. 

The 9/11 Memorial's Tribute in Lights, which features dozens of powerful bulbs pointed skyward, is perhaps the most famous example of this hazard. Every year, the beams catch thousands of migrating birds that are lured by the glow. Stuck flying around the beam, birds waste valuable energy they need to fuel their long journeys. But thanks to the hard work of New York City Audubon, the city now partners with the chapter to monitor how many birds get trapped. When the number gets too high, they shut the lights for 20-30 minutes to let the birds escape and continue along their way.

This is just one example of how Audubon’s Lights Out initiative is making a difference. By reducing light pollution we can save birds and many other wildlife disoriented by lights—turtles coming ashore to nest, for example, can also get turned around by artificial lighting. In addition to just turning off your inside lights manually, homeowners should also make sure external lighting is either off or has a shield, and to use timers in case you are away or forget. With these simple actions, you can contribute to a nationwide movement aimed at saving migrating birds and reducing your energy consumption.

Become an Advocate  

Putting up decals and flipping the switch will certainly help birds, but perhaps the best thing you can do for them is to become an advocate on their behalf. Speaking at city planning meetings, making appointments with your elected representatives, and letter writing are all ways to possibly affect much larger changes. For example, campaigning for your city to enact bird-friendly architecture guidelines can produce real results, such as the bird-safe building standards Golden Gate Audubon helped get implemented in San Francisco, Oakland, and Richmond, California. And when the bright lights of a building in Texas led hundreds of migrating birds to their death this past spring, Houston Audubon worked with the building's owner to turn the lights off. 

You, too, can make this sort of impact, and an easy way to start is by writing letters informing others of the problem—and the solutions. Many people are unaware that lights pose such a threat to birds, so this one act could make an extroardinary difference. In fact, shutting the lights off in a single building reduced bird deaths by 80 percent, one study found. To get you started, we’ve created two different form letters: one to send an elected official in your town or city, and another to send people who manage commercial or residential buildings in your community. Just copy these form letters, fill out a few spaces to personalize, and send them off. Once you do, you'll officially be an advocate for birds. It's that simple.