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Turn your lights off at night to help birds during migratory season

WMBD poster art by Augusto Silva, courtesy Environment for the Americas

by Eduardo de la Garza

Half of North American bird species migrate in the spring and the fall. Typically, they travel north during the spring — peak season is late April through early May — for more food and longer days in which to nest; when the weather turns cold or resources dwindle, they migrate south with peak fall migration occurring in late September to early October. Distance travelled can be negligible or can be the thousand-mile plus sojourns of birds flying south from the United States and Canada to South America.

It’s a treat for birdwatchers, or anyone, to see birds taking breaks along the way. It lets scientists and researchers get up close and personal to study migratory behavior. And it lets conservationists work to protect birds because the journeys can be treacherous.

World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD), observed this year on May 13, began as International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) celebrated by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in 1993. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation took over the logistics of the day in 1995 before passing its celebration to Environment for the Americas (EFTA) — whose mission is to connect “diverse people to nature and to the protection of birds and their habitats” — in 2007. IMBD became WMBD in 2018.

“We celebrate World Migratory Bird Day to raise awareness of migratory birds and the need for international cooperation to conserve them,” said Kyle Carlsen, communications specialist for EFTA. “It offers an opportunity for all of us to come together and get outside, learn about birds, and commit to taking action to protect and conserve birds and their habitats.”

One way to protect birds during migration season is through the Lights Out, Texas campaign. Spearheaded by Houston Audubon as a response to a 2017 incident in which nearly 400 warblers and orioles hit the American National Insurance Co. building in Galveston because birds travel mostly at night and are attracted to lights, the campaign urges townships, buildings, and citizens to turn off nonessential lights from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.

“Birds will fly towards any light they see, and this can either pull them off track for migration or cause them to fly into windows if the light is behind a window,” said Gabriel Durham, program manager for Houston Audubon. “We and our partners organize Lights Out to literally save lives. One billion birds die per year due to window collisions and getting lights out can reduce significant numbers of these deaths without having to retrofit buildings. Long story short, the night is supposed to be dark and keeping the lights on is making the entire planet less healthy.”

The City of Houston, the City of Galveston, downtown Houston, and 40 buildings have pledged to turn their lights out during the migratory season. Anyone who wants their organization to participate by making a pledge to turn out their lights should contact Kathy Sweezey at ksweezey@houstonaudubon.org.

“We also have Collision Monitors checking for birds that have hit windows in downtown Houston each migration to gather data about the success of buildings that do agree to turn off the skyline lights,” Durham said.

The theme for this year’s World Migratory Bird Day is a common one. In fact, this year’s Earth Day shared it. One might get the idea that water is a pretty important resource.

“Water is fundamental to sustaining life on our planet. Migratory birds rely on water and its associated habitats — lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, swamps, marshes, and coastal wetlands — for breeding, resting, refueling during migration, and wintering,” Carlsen said. “Yet increasing demand for water, along with climate change, pollution and other factors, are threatening these ecosystems.”

Beyond pledging to turn off your lights to create safe passage for birds, there are other ways to get involved in WMBD. The website migratorybirdday.org, through EFTA, offers more information, event listings and resources to use in classrooms — or just to learn. Houston Audubon’s Bird-Friendly Communities educates on the best way to help birds, not just during migratory season but throughout the year.

“Birds teach us to love and care for our shared natural world,” Carlsen said. “They are all around us, accessible to everyone, and show us that everything is connected. Conserving birds means conserving habitat and natural resources, which directly helps other species, as well as people.”