Making Atlanta Safer for Migrating Birds
By Jared Teutsch, Executive Director
Bird migration is one of the most amazing feats in the natural world. Each fall and spring, billions of birds take to the skies, avoiding predators, and dodging turbulent weather as they travel between breeding grounds in the north and wintering grounds in the Caribbean or Central and South America. Some of these migration routes are epic, like the Red Knot that travels more than 9,300 miles one-way each fall and spring, pausing along Georgia’s coast to refuel. Or, the tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird, weighing about the same as a penny, that spends summers in Georgia and then, in a stunning migratory feat, crosses the Gulf of Mexico, a 500-mile trip, in a single 18- to 22-hour flight!
Many of these birds pass through Atlanta where they face a relatively new and dangerous threat—glass-covered, brightly-lit buildings. Current research estimates that between 365 million and 1 billion birds perish each year after colliding with buildings in the U.S. Atlanta is a particularly challenging place for migrating birds, ranking as the fourth most dangerous city during fall migration and ninth in spring for light exposure to migratory birds, according to a 2019 study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. With an estimated 250 million birds passing over Georgia during spring and 675 million birds migrating over in the fall, it is vital to learn about migration over our state and make our cities safer.
Most migrating birds pass through Georgia during the nighttime hours, when skies are calmer, predators are less active, and temperatures are cooler. Large, brightly lit cities wreak havoc on migratory birds as the ever-present glow of artificial light turns the normally safe nighttime sky into a perilous pathway. Bright lights attract and disorient birds causing them to be pulled into urban spaces, collide with structures or become trapped in beams of light where they circle until they are exhausted. Once in these unfamiliar places, brightly lit building lobbies, reflective glass showing trees and shrubs, transparent facades, or even indoor plants near windows can lead to more collisions.
Since 2015, Georgia Audubon has been studying this problem through Project Safe Flight Georgia to gain a better understanding of what buildings are most problematic and which species are most affected. During spring and fall migration, volunteers patrol routes in downtown Atlanta, Buckhead, Dunwoody, as well as at Georgia Tech, Kennesaw State University, and Georgia State University. Through newly developed partnerships with these universities and the Lily Branch Audubon student chapter at the University of Georgia, in Athens, we have opened the door to new research opportunities, student engagement, and the possibility of making the campuses safer for birds.
A sister program to Project Safe Flight, the Lights Out Georgia initiative is a voluntary effort designed to make Georgia safer for our resident and migratory birds. Modeled after similar successful programs in New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, and Toronto, Lights Out Georgia participants pledge to take bird-friendly steps during spring and fall migration between the hours of 12:00 midnight and sunrise to create safer passage for migrating birds. You can learn more about Light Out Georgia at www.georgiaaudubon.org/lights-out-georgia.
Finally, thanks to a collaborative effort between Georgia Audubon and Dr. Kyle Horton, at Colorado State University, and a generous grant from the Disney Conservation Fund, Georgia Audubon recently launched a new tool allowing us to predict nights of high bird migration and issue Lights Out Alerts. While it may not be possible to dim the lights every single night during migration, reducing or eliminating nighttime lights on the ten or so highest nights (that account for nearly 50 percent of all migrants each season) may be a more palatable approach.
Beyond monitoring for building collision victims, we are taking steps to reduce these collisions through education, advocacy, and physically improving problematic buildings. From applying bird-safe film to select buildings with a collision problem to exploring the best avenues for implementing bird friendly glass in new construction projects, Georgia Audubon is working to make Atlanta a city that works not only for its residents, but also for the avian life that shares our space.