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People, Places & Parks Thought Leadership

Turn the Lights Out for Georgia Birds

By Jared Teutsch, Executive Director

Spring is here and across Georgia we are seeing signs of life in our gardens and landscapes. Those who pay attention to the sounds of the seasons will have also noticed a huge uptick in the amount of bird song each morning. There’s a cacophony of songs as our resident birds gear up for nesting season. Migratory birds are also on the move from their winter homes in Central and South America back to Georgia and other states where they will build their nests and rear their young. 

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.

Birds passing through Atlanta and other cities face an additional threat—glass-covered, brightly-lit buildings. 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 both attract and disorient birds, causing them to flock to our illuminated spaces where they often collide with structures or become trapped in beams of light where they circle until they are exhausted. 

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.

While there are a myriad of pre- and post-construction solutions that can reduce bird collisions, one of the simplest and most effective things that can be done is to simply turn out the lights, particularly on nights of peak migration, which generally occur 10 or fewer nights each fall and spring. Since 2017, Georgia Audubon has been encouraging people to sign up for the Lights Out Georgia initiative, and many hundreds of people have signed the pledge. But while turning out the lights is an easy lift for residential dwellers, it can be more challenging for large commercial properties where outdoor lighting is both decorative and functional. Thanks to a new program, however, Georgia Audubon has developed a tool to identify nights of peak migration and is developing an alert system that should make this program more accessible for commercial properties and others who are unable to darken their buildings for weeks at a time. 

Through a collaborative venture between Georgia Audubon and Dr. Kyle Horton, at Colorado State University, and a generous grant from the Disney Conservation Fund, Georgia Audubon has launched a new tool allowing us to predict nights of high bird migration and issue Lights Out Alerts. While it may not be feasible to dim the lights every single night during migration, reducing or eliminating nighttime lights on the ten or fewer peak migratory nights each season is a much easier request and makes the program more palatable to commercial properties.

To learn more about Georgia Audubon’s work to prevent bird-building collisions or to sign up to receive Lights Out Alerts, please visit https://www.georgiaaudubon.org/lights-out-georgia.html. Together we can make Atlanta a safer place for migrating birds.


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