High-rise buildings in US city turn off lights to save birds flying at night

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Lights in the US city of Philadelphia won’t shine as bright in the coming weeks as a group in ‘Philly’ tries to save millions of migrating birds from slamming into skyscrapers* and crashing to the footpath as they pass through twice a year.

Bird Safe Philly last week launched Lights Out Philly, a voluntary* night-time program of turning off or dimming outside and inside building lights during the spring and autumn.

Philly building lights causing bird deaths is not new.

“We have specimens* in the academy’s ornithology* collection from a kill that happened when lights were first installed on Philadelphia’s City Hall tower in 1896,” said Jason Weckstein, associate curator* of ornithology at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences.

The action group formed after the city’s largest mass-collision event in 70 years last October. Hundreds of dead birds were found around the city.

media_cameraLightning illuminates storm clouds over the Philadelphia skyline, Tuesday Aug. 16, 2016. Weather conditions can confuse migrating birds. Picture: AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek

“Conditions were perfect for a heavy migratory flight and imperfect given that there was a low ceiling of clouds and rain,” Mr Weckstein said. “That in combination with Philly’s bright city lights was a disaster for many fall migrant birds winging their way south.”

Birds navigate during migration using celestial* cues and when they cannot see stars on a cloudy night they get confused by bright city lights, according to experts.

Windows can be a problem, according to Mr Weckstein, because birds might see a reflection of trees or the sky.

Scientists estimate between 365 million and one billion birds are killed by collisions with buildings or other outdoor structures in the US every year and those crashes are taking a toll on some species.

Common yellowthroats, white-throated sparrows, grey catbirds and ovenbirds are the most common victims in Philadelphia, experts said, and those species are also threatened by climate change and other predators.

media_cameraView of downtown Philadelphia from the tower of City Hall, itself a site of bird deaths when it first installed lights in 1896.

“The ovenbird and the black-throated blue warbler are among the hundreds of bird species that are now at an increased risk of extinction in North America because of climate change,” said Keith Russell, with Audubon mid-Atlantic. “But many of these species also face the additional threat of colliding with buildings.”

Mr Russell said the Philadelphia initiative has the added benefit of lowering energy consumption, potentially slowing climate change.

The Lights Out Philly program runs from April 1 through May 31 and from August 15 to November 15. Property managers and tenants are asked to voluntarily switch off lights between midnight and 6am, especially in a building’s upper levels, lobbies and atriums.

The Building Owners and Managers Association of Philadelphia (BOMA), which represents over 475 members who own or manage commercial properties or provide services to buildings, said the response has been “extremely robust*.”

“We have some early adopters* and the list is approaching 20 buildings, many of which are iconic* and very recognisable members of the Philadelphia skyline,” said BOMA executive director Kristine Kiphorn.

“We get to do our part in the community to help preserve* the bird population, and we get to conserve* energy at the same time.”

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The first Lights Out program was in 1999 in Chicago. Philadelphia joins 33 other American cities including New York, Boston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

The Bird Safe Philly group is working to build tracking throughout the city to find problem areas and to check whether its campaign works.

While dimming the lights may help, there’s one danger wild birds will still face: feral* and outdoor cats are the birds’ biggest killers, Weckstein said.

GLOSSARY

skyscrapers: high-rise buildings voluntary: done freely without payment specimen: an animal, plant, piece of a mineral, etc. used for scientific study or display. ornithology: the scientific study of birds curator: a keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection. robust: strong and healthy early adopters: people who are first to start doing or using something iconic: well-known, recognisable and established preserve: protect, maintain conserve: save, protect feral: wild, untamed

EXTRA READING

How do birds fly? Why can’t humans fly?

Big bird flies without flapping

Earth Hour: Change the way we live

QUICK QUIZ

    What is the Lights Out Philly program trying to prevent? When did the Bird Safe Philly group form and why? How do birds navigate during migration? Name some of the most common bird species affected in Philadelphia. Why can windows be a problem for birds? What are the birds’ biggest killers?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Artist’s Impression of Philly Lights
Divide an A4 piece of paper in half and rule a straight line down the page. On one side of the page draw the skyscrapers of Philadelphia lit up a night. On the other side of the page draw the same skyscrapers with some of the lights off at night.

Incorporate the birds into your artist’s view of the city. 

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Visual Arts

2. Extension
What could be the possible disadvantages of turning off some of the city lights at night?

What are some other threats facing some of these bird species?

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
Summarise the article
A summary is a brief statement of the main points of something. It does not usually include extra detail or elaborate on the main points.

Use the 5W & H model to help you find the key points of this article. Read the article carefully to locate who and what this article is about, and where, when, why and how this is happening. Once you have located this information in the article, use it to write a paragraph that summarises the article.

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