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City Of Austin Considers Turning Off Lights To Help Migrating Birds

A blue jay.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A blue jay in the Cherrywood neighborhood of Austin on April 29, 2020.

An estimated 2 billion birds will migrate through Texas between now and December. They face many dangers on their journey, and Central Texas conservationists would prefer that light pollution was not one of them.

If an Austin City Council resolution passes next Thursday, that goal might be a little closer.

The resolution, sponsored by Council Member Leslie Pool, would call on city facilities to turn off non-essential lighting during peak fall and spring bird migration, and encourage the public to do the same.

Because birds often migrate by the light of the moon and stars, artificial illumination can confuse them, throw them off course and even cause them to crash en masse into buildings.

Travis County passed a similar resolution earlier this month as part of a national lights out initiative.

“It’s a pretty simple initiative,” said Travis County Audubon executive director Nicole Netherton. “If we can all agree to do this in our homes, if people can talk to their building owners, to their businesses, and see if they can commit to doing the same thing, we will protect birds.”

Scientific research has shown that lights out policies can reduce bird crashes.

A studythis year from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology showed that darkening half the windows at Chicago’s McCormick Place, the largest convention center in the U.S., led to six times fewer collision deaths during the fall migration and eleven times fewer in the spring.

Conservationists say dimming lights in smaller homes helps a lot too.

“If single family residences are in an area with birds surrounding them, then windows and glass are something that is going to make them collision-prone anyway,” said Julia Wang, a project leader with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “When lights are on, that’s more likely to happen.”

Wang said something as simple as turning off a porch light or pulling down a window shade can help reduce the overall light pollution emitted by a city.

“It’s the cumulative problem of light pollution drawing birds into urban areas, and that includes single family residences in and around cities,” she said.

Austin’s Lights Out resolution is scheduled for a vote on Thursday. With five out of 11 council members already co-sponsoring it, the item appears likely to fly.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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