Bird-Friendly Communities

Research and Conservation – What Lights Out is All About

Launched in 2013, Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities initiative is a partnership program involving more than 20 organizations with a vision for creating a more bird-friendly North Carolina. This vision statement guides the goals and projects of the group: “Bird-friendly communities give birds the opportunity to succeed by providing connected habitat dominated by native plants, minimizing threats posed by the built environment, and engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in stewardship of nature.”

Please welcome guest blogger Wendy Hawkins, an avid birder who coordinates Forsyth Audubon’s Lights Out program.

Lights Out volunteers in Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Raleigh spend their early mornings surveying the streets for birds injured or killed from window collisions during evening migration. This special blog series takes Audubon readers behind the scenes to see how Lights Out work supports important research and education programs for bird conservation in our state.

This fall, dozens of birds were found in downtown Winston-Salem. So, where do the birds go? All of the birds collected this fall by our volunteers of Forsyth Audubon continued a different kind of migration from downtown Winston-Salem to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

Click here to read the first installment where Wendy helped deliver 80 bird carcasses to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. All of these birds were victims of window collisions found during daily surveys in downtown Winston-Salem.

Museum staff prepare bird specimens. Photo by Ron Morris

Curator of Birds John Gerwin explained that only a small fraction of the birds that Lights Out volunteers and other citizens deliver to the museum get mounted for display. The rest of them are stored laying flat on their backs in drawers. Why store all those birds?

All of the Lights Out birds are kept at the museum because they are part of a special project. Although the museum has more than 30,000 birds in their collection, many birds are distributed to other museums for educational purposes. The bird bodies may be used for a wide variety of scientific research and education – some of which includes the still unknown.

For example, sometimes a professor may want to have some specimens for students to examine close up. What better way to learn about the structure of a bird! Other research projects involving DNA studies may arise. In that case, having specimens from a wide range of time (say before the use of certain pesticides were implemented) can provide valuable samples for testing. Any serious case argument has got to be substantiated with hard scientific evidence to have a significant impact.

North Carolina’s Lights Out program is a great example of collecting data during migration to make a case to building owners to turn out their lights at night.

What about the unknown? John explained that there is a lot of room for problems or questions that haven’t yet surfaced, for which these specimens may prove invaluable. DNA testing was not even developed when they started, and now the collection is an excellent resource for DNA samples addressing all kinds of questions. The massive database that accompanies this collection is also an important resource.

I emerged from the depths of the museum full of new visions and knowledge. Back to Winston-Salem I went, contemplating the relationship between our contribution to scientific research and to bird conservation. That is what the Lights Out program is all about!

Lights Out: Birds need a dark sky to navigate. That is the goal of the Audubon Lights Out programs in Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Raleigh. Birds collide because they have evolved to navigate their migration route by the stars and moon. City lights (only a new problem – in the last 100 years) steer them off course. Once inside the glowing dome of city light, birds get confused and exhausted – then collide with windows, which they often don’t perceive as solid.

Estimates indicate that 100 million to 1 billion birds fall victim to buildings every year in the United States alone.

This affects many endangered and threatened species. A Lights Out volunteer contacts building managers to request they turn off their lights (especially outside, upward-facing ones, but also interior lights) from 11 p.m. to dawn during peak migration season. Amazingly, this makes a serious difference! In Winston-Salem, we have seen a 50 percent reduction in the number of collision victims since five buildings began participating in Lights Out.

Wendy Hawkins holding a Wood Thrush that didn’t become part of the museum collection! Photo by Kim Brand

How do we know? That’s where the “Dead Bird Patrol” volunteers come in. Requests for changes in practices or legislation regarding light pollution don’t come easily, especially without hard evidence. Volunteers, armed with a permit from John for collecting migratory birds (which would otherwise be ILLEGAL), go out early each morning during migration seasons, inspecting a certain list of buildings for dead or injured birds. Each finding is carefully recorded (date, location, species – if known, etc.) and entered into a database. The birds are then frozen and saved for the museum.

Our local data combined with larger efforts statewide, and even nationwide, provide the needed evidence to affect change -- even then, it doesn’t come easily. That is why it is so important to press on toward the goal and inspire many more building owners and managers to participate in cities and towns across North Carolina. There are solutions that will help the entire animal kingdom, including humans, to live in harmony healthfully. If you work in a high-rise building with lights shining upward or outward, ask the building owner for Lights Out during spring and fall migration!

I’ll be looking forward to spring migration and more “dead bird patrol” in 2015!

For more information on Lights Out in North Carolina visit the Audubon North Carolina website.

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