Blinded by the Light

Prothonotary warbler (iStockphoto.com/William Sherman, used with permission)

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I’m not someone who keeps a birding life list—a carefully documented account of every species of bird I’ve ever encountered—but I enjoy seeing something unusual as much as the next gal or guy. Right now, all across North America, great avian rivers are flowing southward and even the shyest fliers may need to rest and refuel in town. Knowing this, when I’m out for a walk these days I keep my eyes and ears open for species that aren’t commonly observed in human habitats.

One of the best, and worst, places to see a diverse array of migratory birds is at the base of tall buildings. Sadly, some of them are dead, some injured, and the others are simply too exhausted to fly any further. The city can be a dangerous place for a south-bound bird. One expert estimates as many as 100 million birds die in collisions with buildings every year. Songbirds, particularly warblers (including the prothonotary warbler shown above), are especially vulnerable.

At night, migrating birds seem to be strongly attracted to artificial light and once inside the neon and fluorescent glow they’re reluctant to return to the darkness. High-rise glass and light are a deadly combination for these travelers—those that don’t collide with the buildings fly around and around as if caught in a sci-fi tractor beam until they drop from fatigue.

In some cities, bird-loving volunteers organize rescue teams who arrive before sunrise to beat gulls, free-roaming cats, and other scavengers to the survivors. The injured are transported to wildlife rehabilitators for care, the dead are collected and counted.  The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors have reported finding an average of 5,000 birds on the streets and sidewalks during the annual spring and fall migrations. In Toronto alone the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) has documented bird-building collisions for over 140 species.

No one wants to add to his or her life list this way.

Thankfully, FLAP has some simple suggestions for reducing the carnage:

  • Turn off the office lights and close the blinds when you leave at the end of the day, and ask your co-workers to do the same.
  • Talk to the building’s maintenance supervisor and cleaning staff to explain their critical role in creating a bird-friendly building.
  • If you notice dead and/or injured birds on the ground around your building, consider organizing a group of coworkers to serve as rescuers and team with wildlife rehabilitators in your area.
  • FLAP recommends keeping a supply of paper grocery bags on hand for rescues. Once a bird has been placed inside the top can be folded over and stapled shut. This does not create an air-tight seal so there’s no need to poke air holes in the bag, and the darkness inside the bag will help calm the bird so it doesn’t injure itself further.

Before you forget, why not leave a reminder on your computer screen or near your office door? If you make it just a little harder to see migratory birds in the urban jungle you may end up making it just a little easier to continue seeing migratory birds in the future.

Have a question about wildlife and other next-door nature? Send me an email and the answer may turn up as a future blog post. And don’t forget to “Like” NDN on Facebook!

© 2010 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.

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