Opinion: It’s time to dim our lights for migrating birds

Photographed Friday, Dec. 8 2017, from the sixth level of the Chapel York Garage at 150 York St. shows a view of the downtown area of New Haven. The increase in light pollution in cities is having an adverse effect on people's health and the environment.

Photographed Friday, Dec. 8 2017, from the sixth level of the Chapel York Garage at 150 York St. shows a view of the downtown area of New Haven. The increase in light pollution in cities is having an adverse effect on people's health and the environment.

Catherine Avalone/Hearst Connecticut Media

Watching ducks and geese wing their way across the sky in V-formation, we know that October is a time of bird migration here in Connecticut. Right now, millions of birds are making their way across our woods, lakes and shorelines on their way down to their southern wintering grounds. Oct. 8 is World Migratory Bird Day.

But why do birds migrate? Why do they disappear in one season only reappear in another?

New Haven played an outsized role in helping to solve this puzzle. In 1908, local ornithologist Leon Cole began banding birds for the first time in history in nearby East Rock Park, Edgewood and other New Haven green spaces to try to uncover the bird migration secret. He and a team of researchers from the New Haven Bird Club banded baby birds in the fall and collected data on if the same birds returned in the spring.

From these efforts, they determined that these birds were traveling vast distances, crossing national and continental borders to reach their ideal winter and summer habitats, where temperatures are mild and food is plentiful.

Next, in the 1950s, scientists were astonished to discover that birds migrate at night, when temperatures are cooler and predators are few. It turns out that birds set their direction by the light of the setting sun and then navigate by the light of the moon and stars, like mini Magellans. Birds can also see the four directions using a sixth sense in their eyes that can detect the earth’s magnetic field. Nature astonishes us!

Unfortunately, for millions of birds navigating over New Haven and other built-up areas in Connecticut, their journeys are perilous.

We have constructed coastal cities right along their flight paths. And at nighttime, when birds are flying overhead, we shine bright lights up into the sky from our homes, buildings, bridges, streets and schools, drowning out the light of the stars and creating skyglow that confuses and disorients migratory birds that have evolved to travel at night, in near darkness.

Birds end up landing in unsafe, overlit areas, where they are at risk of flying into glass windows. The result is catastrophic: nearly 1 billion birds are killed in the United States every year in window collisions.

A 2019 report in the Science journal estimated that we have lost one in four birds in North America since 1970. Several well-loved species, like the piping plover and northern harrier, are threatened with extinction. A terrifying reality is staring us in the face. Unless we act now, dozens of bird species will be forever lost from the earth in the next 50 to 100 years.

The good news is that we can do something right now to help save migratory birds with one simple action: switching off or dimming our excess indoor and outdoor lights every night from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. during periods of peak migration: Sept. 1to Nov. 15 and April  1 to May 31. Light pollution is the only kind of pollution that can be reversed immediately. And studies in Chicago and New York City have shown that turning off unnecessary artificial lights dramatically reduces the hazards for migratory birds.

Everyone has a role to play in helping birds to safely migrate.

In February, Connecticut became the fifth state in the nation to have a statewide effort to turn off lights for birds during peak fall and spring migration. The Connecticut Ornithological Association voted to create a nonprofit project called Lights Out Connecticut to raise awareness about the threat of light pollution for Connecticut birds and organize local residents and business to dim their lights during migration.

Nutmeggers from Stamford to Salisbury, and Thompson to Stonington are showing their love for birds by joining a growing coalition of local residents, businesses, property owners and local partners who pledge to turn off or dim their nonessential lights each night. Already, nearly 200 Connecticut property owners have signed the Lights Out Connecticut pledge.

Meanwhile, legislative efforts continue at the General Assembly to pass a bill that would require all state-owned buildings to adjust their lighting during peak migration for the protection of birds. This law, co-sponsored by Reps. David Michel and Josh Elliott, would make Connecticut a leader in saving migratory birds and reducing energy waste.

We are also getting a clearer picture of bird migration and bird fatalities in our city, thanks to bird monitoring led by Viveca Morris, executive director of Yale’s Law, Ethics & Animals Program. Since April 2018, she and a team of Yale staff, students, alumni and community scientists, in partnership with the Yale Peabody Museum, have recorded hundreds of bird collisions at the heavily glassed Yale School of Management’s Edward P. Evans Hall, on Whitney Avenue, and other high-collision buildings, using iNaturalist.org. This data will help us advocate for bird-friendly practices, like installing window treatments and reducing lighting.

It all adds up to make a big difference for migratory birds looking for safe passage through our state.

Meredith Barges and Craig Repasz are co-chairs of Lights Out Connecticut. Learn more about Lights Out CT and CT’s migratory birds at www.lightsoutct.org