Environment

Making the city that never sleeps safer for birds

New York City is at the center of a political fight over dimming nighttime lights that attract and kill migrating birds

July 7, 2022
Wildlife rehabilitator Tristan Higginbotham holds a small ovenbird
Wildlife rehabilitator Tristan Higginbotham holds an ovenbird, one of spring’s many avian migrators. The birds are known for their oven-like nests, and in New York City, their propensity to fly into skyscraper windows. [Credit: Tatum McConnell]

The spotted bird looked out with big curious eyes, held in the deft hand of wildlife rehabilitator Tristan Higginbotham. It was found days earlier, dazed and unable to fly on the sidewalk in Williamsburg, Brooklyn after smashing into a building.

Higginbotham gently released the bird near the floor, and we waited eagerly to see if it would pass the fly test. In a flurry of flapping wings, it took off and settled on a branch near the ceiling. A few days of rest and anti-inflammatory medication at the Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Manhattan, had restored the ovenbird to full health. 

Not every bird brought to the Wild Bird Fund does so well. After a collision, a bird that makes it to the center has a fifty-fifty chance of survival, says Higginbotham. “The birds we release, they kind of have to be in perfect condition because they’re migrating thousands of miles.” 

Luckily the ovenbird was released in Central Park after recuperating for a few days. It continued the northward migration that the window in Williamsburg nearly cut short, joining millions of migratory birds headed to summer breeding grounds.

Each spring and fall migration season, Higginbotham and other wildlife rehabilitators ready themselves for the carnage. Somewhere between 90,000 and 230,000 birds die from collisions in New York City each year, the NYC Audubon Society estimates. Bright lights and transparent glass are the leading culprits, scientists say. And while New York City has recently mandated protections for birds in government buildings and in new construction projects, many wildlife activists say more needs to be done to significantly reduce the grim toll.

“There are approximately one million buildings in New York City and in order to address them all we really need legislation requiring buildings to be bird-friendly,” says Kaitlyn Parkins, a science consultant for NYC Audubon.

In January, the City Council enacted two laws to reduce lighting in about 17,000 city-owned or leased buildings, with one law specifically targeting migration periods. Two years earlier, the council enacted a law requiring bird-friendly building designs for new construction.

But a fourth bill that would require many thousands of commercial buildings to turn off their lights at night never even made it to a vote. The powerful Real Estate Board of New York opposed it, voicing concerns about safety and feasibility.

The bill “would dramatically disrupt the operations of commercial buildings where significant activity occurs at night,” testified Ryan Monell, a representative of the real estate board, at a legislative hearing on the proposal. He noted that city codes require lighting in stairwells, elevators and lobbies, and pointed out the lack of consideration for new buildings like One World Trade Center that have designed their lighting around existing requirements. The board’s published testimony also emphasized the cultural importance of landmark buildings like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

During the hearing for the bill, former Council Member Helen Rosenthal voiced opposition to Monell’s arguments against the bill. “I don’t think the bill is talking about elevator lighting or stairwell lighting, or lobby floor lighting – all of those things, which are critical for security.” 

The bill applies to both interior and exterior lighting, but not while anyone is present inside a building. It would allow some exemptions to buildings that receive landmark status or demonstrate a security need. It states that the new lighting rules don’t override existing lighting laws or zoning regulations. 

The city’s real estate lobby “kind of were sounding the alarm about imaginary problems that didn’t exist,” says Edita Birnkrant, Executive Director of NYCLASS, an animal rights organization. “We don’t want to affect security lighting.”

In an email, Monell noted that the kinds of commercial buildings the bill would address are almost never empty. They’re staffed continuously throughout the night by security personnel and maintenance crews. “Many owners already put in motion sensors to control lighting demonstrating the industry’s compassion for this issue,” Monell says. He believes the proposed lighting requirements would be unrealistic for most buildings. 

The bill is now being rewritten in partnership with the Lights Out Coalition, a group of organizations including the NYC Audubon Society, the Wild Bird Fund and NYCLASS. Birnkrant explains they’re taking criticisms of the initial bill into consideration, and are “restructuring the bill to make it even stronger.” The real estate board, meanwhile, is hoping to see a bill that “pursues these goals in more measured ways,” says Monell.

In the U.S. at least 19 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have laws restricting light at night. Many of these laws focus on adding shielding on outdoor lights to direct light downward, and do not address indoor lighting that shines through windows. If the bird advocates get their way, the proposed New York City law could be the most far-reaching attempt yet to reduce nighttime lighting in the U.S.

Advocates are focusing on lighting to prevent bird deaths because most birds migrate at night, not during the day. “It could be up to 850 million birds over the U.S. on a single night,” says Andrew Farnsworth, a biologist at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There’s no definitive reason birds prefer nighttime migration, but it may be because they prefer to keep cool and avoid turbulent warmer air. Flying at night may also help them avoid predators like raptors, who hunt other birds during the day, Farnsworth says. 

“Light definitely attracts birds at night and light also disorients them,” he says. The lights may create an orientation point for flying birds to focus on, or they may obscure other signals birds use to navigate, like the moon and stars.

At the crux of two major migratory pathways, the Hudson Valley and the East Coast, New York City’s lights draw in a huge number of birds. Some species, such as brants, nest in the Arctic during the summer and fly thousands of miles before reaching New York City, says Farnsworth.

The attractive power of New York City’s nighttime glow pulls in birds that would otherwise be more spread out, says Parkins of NYC Audubon. This means more birds for enthusiasts to spot, but also more collisions. 

During the fall and spring migration seasons, NYC Audubon volunteers survey buildings for bird deaths. In September 2021, one volunteer found that over 200 birds had smashed into 3 and 4 World Trade Center and died in a single day. The deaths included many warblers, a group bird-watchers strive to see during migrations. The volunteer also found 30 injured birds and brought them to the Wild Bird Fund. 

“Individual buildings turning their lights off might help a little bit, but really what we need is [for] New York City to reduce the overall lighting in our city,” says Parkins – something that she says can only happen through legislation. NYC Audubon has tried voluntary lights out efforts and the real estate board has encouraged buildings to participate, but Parkins says a voluntary strategy isn’t enough to make a difference in a city as big as New York.

Volunteer efforts have been more successful in cities with smaller downtowns, such as Houston, where a few buildings can represent a larger portion of total lighting, says Parkins. The Houston Audubon Society runs a voluntary program where the owners of at least 39 buildings have pledged to turn off lights during the migratory season. They rely on forecasts of migratory bird densities put out by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology to strategically reduce lighting at times when the most birds are up in the air.  

The New York City law requiring bird-friendly windows and other design features for all new construction took effect in January 2021. The Javits Center, a large glass convention center in Manhattan, was a key example proving the effectiveness of less transparent glass. The building underwent a bird-friendly glass retrofit in 2013 and saw an over 90% decrease in bird deaths.  

Making glass less reflective means birds are less likely to mistake it for the sky or any reflected greenery. Recent architectural trends have moved toward clear glass and plants indoors or on facades, which can confuse birds, Parkins explains. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more collisions now than there were two decades ago,” she says.

The issue is about more than the life or death of individual birds, says Parkins. “I do look at this as a conservation issue … bird window collisions are the second largest direct human-caused source of mortality for birds.” NYC Audubon reports that white-throated sparrows, known for their white neck and distinctive yellow eyebrows, are the most frequent collision victims, followed by common yellowthroat warblers.  

While she waits for the city to act, Tristan Higginbotham spends her days caring for birds. She and the Wild Bird Fund team rush to provide the best treatments to injured migrators, sick pigeons, fledglings separated from their parents and many other birds. From May to June the facility saw its spring migration peak, the migratory bird room often full of songbirds and warblers that hit buildings.

Like many other bird-lovers, Higginbotham hopes the city will act soon to expand its bird protections. “We know the issue, we know the solution and it’s just a matter of … people caring enough to change it.”

About the Author

Tatum McConnell

Tatum McConnell recently graduated from Columbia University where she studied environmental biology. She’s always loved nature but working with nonprofit Vital Ground as their “bear blogger extraordinaire” helped her discover her passion for writing about it. She’s thrilled to launch a career telling Earth’s stories and has a particular interest in wildlife and conservation. When she’s not writing you can find Tatum running, enjoying a good book, or attempting to befriend Morningside Park’s feral cats.

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