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'Fatal light attraction': the urban phenomenon that's killing migratory birds

From space, the bright glow of lights outlines the dark expanses of the Great Lakes at night.

Just as in other places, the artificial light here attracts the migratory birds flying through the Niagara River corridor.

Then it disorients them.

Often it kills them.

“These birds are essentially in the midst of an ironman event – they can’t afford distractions,” said Melissa Fratello, executive director of the Buffalo Audubon Society.

As a whole, the Buffalo Niagara region isn’t as brightly lit at night as other parts of the nation, according to a new Cornell University study.

The study, published last month by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, found Chicago, Houston and Dallas had the highest levels of light pollution in the nation.

Buffalo ranked 55th for light pollution during spring migration season and 65th for fall migration in the survey of 125 large U.S. cities.

Why does it matter?

Migrating birds, which make up about 70 percent of the species in North America, overwhelmingly travel at night, instinctively using the stars and other celestial objects for navigation. They travel between the tropics and the Arctic.

Increased urbanization has brought more light pollution to the skies, which obscures the night sky for migrating birds.

“This is an important concept,” said Jay Burney, chairman of Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve. “Most birds migrate at night, usually just after dusk, and fly until dawn.”

View of Niagara Falls at night from the roof of the Marriott Fallsview in 2012. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Hundreds of species of birds – including shore birds and songbirds – are known to frequent the Buffalo Niagara region. It is located on the Atlantic Flyway, a significant north-south migratory path. What’s more, the Niagara River corridor is classified by the Audubon Society as a globally significant important bird area.

Other globally significant bird areas include Yellowstone National Park, the Galapagos Islands and Florida’s Everglades.

Bird's eye view

Collisions with buildings are one common cause of death for migrating birds attracted to light or reflection. Often it happens in adverse weather conditions like fog.

“Others could be exhaustion,” said Kyle G. Horton, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology postdoctoral fellow who co-authored the study. “More subtly, burning of energy reserves caused by circling around lights could delay migrants. This delay could have impacts on the success of that bird breeding or finding a suitable territory.”

“Fatal light attraction,” as the phenomenon is known, is believed to be linked to hundreds of millions of bird deaths nationwide every year due to collisions with windows, building walls or even the ground, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Not surprisingly, the study found light pollution was concentrated in higher-populated urban areas.

That’s easy to see from nighttime images taken from space. Urban light in places like Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland – and even the Buffalo Niagara region – bleeds for miles into the wide dark expanse of lakes Michigan, Ontario and Erie.

So, wouldn’t the birds seek out the dark airspace over the lakes?

“It appears that actually the opposite is likely true,” Horton said. “Birds are attracted to urban areas because of the light pollution.”

Niagara Falls future getting brighter with new LED lights on falls

Researchers studied more than 20 years of data from weather surveillance radar and satellite sensors to identify the places and seasons when the highest numbers of migrating birds were exposed to light pollution.

The type of light used also seems to matter in adding to cumulative light pollution, but experts said it’s still unclear what types of lighting are the primary polluters.

The study concluded conservation efforts and research should be targeted to the times and places where they will have the largest effect, especially in urban areas with large numbers of migrating birds.

“Reducing lighting in areas where birds concentrate, like areas around the Great Lakes, can be especially important,” Horton said.

What are the biggest problem areas?

“Avian experts would argue that all lights at night negatively impact bird migration including in important cities such as Buffalo,” Burney said. “This includes ground lights and streetlights, but also lights in and on buildings, advertising, stadium lights and especially taller glass buildings in migratory areas, such as along Buffalo’s Outer Harbor and downtown.”

Flight plans

The Cornell research provides opportunities for organizations and governments to target strategies that protect migrating birds from light pollution, its authors said.

That doesn’t mean living in the dark. It could include switching off lights during peak migration times, adjusting brightness or shielding and directing light beams.

"Any reduction in light pollution is helpful and could save birds' lives," Fratello said. "Turning lights off in key locations for just an hour at a time can ease the burden on thousands of birds in one evening."

Some of those measures are already underway across New York State, including the Buffalo Niagara region.

The statewide Lights Out Initiative began in 2015.

State-owned and managed buildings started turning off nonessential outdoor lighting between 11 p.m. and dawn during the spring migration season – April 15 and May 31 – and the fall migration season – Aug. 15 to Nov. 15 – in collaboration with the Audubon Society. Iconic New York City landmarks like Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building also participate in the effort.

In Western New York, similar momentum is growing.

The Buffalo Lighthouse shines before daybreak on July 6, 2016. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

The City of Buffalo’s Green Code requires new exterior lighting to minimize light pollution. They include specifications for zoning outside lights, minimizing brightness and limiting "sky glow."

Recent State Parks projects across the Buffalo Niagara region incorporated "the latest sustainable practices" in order to reduce light pollution but still provide for safety and security. Those measures included installation of downward facing lighting and dimmable lighting.

In Niagara Falls, new LED lights were installed below the rim of the gorge "specifically to greatly reduce or eliminate impacts on Goat Island," and lighting in the upper rapids were directed to the water's surface and not toward Goat Island, officials said.

Dimmable lighting was also installed throughout Artpark, the Discovery Center, Niagara Falls parking lots and DeVeaux Woods State Park with upcoming installations planned at Golden Hill Boat Launch in Barker and Beaver Island State Park.

Burney has battled local light pollution for years.

He fought to get the lights turned off on the grain elevators near Times Beach during migration season, worked with the Buffalo Bisons to minimize ballpark lighting and remains involved in a protracted legal fight opposed to the construction of the Queen City Landing high-rise condominiums at the Outer Harbor.

Grain elevator illumination called a threat to birds

Meanwhile, Buffalo Audubon expects to ramp up its role in engaging local residents.

That could include community science and local “lights out” events as well as advocating for bird-protection policies, Fratello said.

“Artificial lighting in downtown Niagara Falls and Buffalo would be Buffalo Audubon’s first targets in a lights-out effort,” Fratello said. “This effort could start incrementally and would hopefully catch on throughout the region.”

“Reducing light is the ultimate goal," Horton said. "Raising awareness is critical.”

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