Bird-Friendly Communities

Lights Out Winston-Salem is saving birds

Please welcome guest-blogger and Audubon North Carolina volunteer, Kim Brand. Kim is a resident of Winston-Salem and a member of Forsyth Audubon. She launched Winston-Salem's Lights Out program, and currently oversees the Bird Friendly Communities program for N.C. 

You never know when someone will walk up to you and start something that will make the world a better place.

That's what happened to me exactly three years ago, at the Apple Festival in Historic Bethabara Park. Forsyth Audubon had set up our usual booth, and I was enjoying chatting with people about the birds that live in their yards.

Then, a woman showed up with something to say about dead birds. "I've got all these dead warblers and thrushes in my freezer. Can Audubon please do something about the lights downtown? They're killing a lot of birds!"

It had never occurred to me that the same birds I sought out every spring and fall - those brightly colored, glorious warblers that love to flit about in the treetops - were crashing into windows downtown!

As Allison Sloan explained, songbirds migrate at night, and are attracted to lights on tall buildings the same way moths are attracted to porch lights, especially on foggy nights. Even if they manage to get safely to the ground and find a bush to rest, they will find themselves faced with glass windows everywhere the next day. Collisions with glass kill as many as 1 billion birds each year.

How fortunate we were to have an expert on bird collisions move to our city. Allison co-founded Project Safe Flight in New York City, and monitored buildings in Manhattan for seven years before moving to Winston-Salem where she found her next project.

What a long way we have come since that first encounter with Allison! Including the birds she found before helping Forsyth Audubon launch a Lights Out program in fall 2011, we have delivered 198 birds to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. In the museum, birds are preserved and used in the permanent collection, or brought out for educational purposes. Additionally, we have rescued 20 birds and shooed 41 stunned birds away from buildings.

Our species tally is a whopping 49 - mostly migrants - and the most common victim by far, at a count of 54, is the Ovenbird, which flies south to Florida, the Bahamas and Central America for the winter.

More importantly, our skies are now darker, and therefore safer, for migrating songbirds. Five of Winston-Salem’s tallest buildings turn their lights out from 11 p.m. to dawn because Audubon members Carol Gearhart and Bill Gifford persuaded them to participate.

A big shout-out to Lights Out participants:

  • Wells Fargo
  • Liberty Plaza
  • Winston Tower
  • Reynolds American Plaza
  • Historic R. J. Reynolds building

Those buildings are making a huge difference for birds. We found one-third fewer dead or injured birds once the lights were out.

Only two buildings in downtown Winston-Salem still have lights directed into our skies at night. We know that persistence is the key to saving birds, and we won't give up!

We want to say thank you to the 25 volunteers who have gotten up early to monitor downtown Winston-Salem. And they aren’t the only ones! We've helped additional Audubon North Carolina chapters launch Lights Out programs, too - stay tuned for another blog post soon.

Kim Brand

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