The National Audubon Society has prioritized making our communities safe for birds. They are focused on improving habitats and nesting site access for birds as well as addressing a serious threat to migrating birds – collisions with manmade structures. The danger posed by collisions with manmade structures, particularly buildings that are lighted at night, is surprisingly large. A major review of published scientific papers found that building collisions are the second most dire cause of mortality from anthropogenic sources, behind outdoor cats. Their analysis suggested that more than half a billion birds die from building collisions in the USA each year; that’s more than one million birds per day, on average!
Downtown Cleveland has been known to be lethal for significant numbers of migrating birds. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Ornithology collection has several thousand specimens from the last century which are attributed to building collisions within Cuyahoga County. For many years, the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center has rehabilitated injured animals from throughout the Cleveland region, and a volunteer who worked downtown was responsible for transmitting hundreds of dead and injured birds to the rehabilitation center every year. In spring 2017, Lights Out Cleveland formalized with representation from the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative (OBCI), Lake Erie Nature & Science Center (LENSC), Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH), Cleveland Metroparks, Akron Zoo, and Lake Metroparks. The effort was spearheaded by the relentless drive and enthusiasm of Tim Jasinski, who works as a wildlife rehabber at LENSC. He compelled these organizations to band together to support this effort, and worked with us at CMNH to collect appropriate data from each injured or dead bird. This program now monitors more than thirty buildings and other structures in downtown Cleveland every day during both spring and fall migration, with the support over more than 70 volunteers. Lights Out Cleveland works each season to find and rehabilitate injured birds for release, to preserve dead birds in the Museum’s collection, and to reach out to the building managers in the region to work with them to mitigate risk factors for migrating birds.
Our Museum is supported by an organization called the Kirtlandia Society; this wonderful group provides one paid internship position per summer to each department in the Museum through the Kirtlandia Research Internship Program. Interns receive a stipend and some funds for research, and for eight weeks they are a full time museum employee. They learn the basics of collections care and use, and they are responsible for completing a research project under the supervision of a Museum curator. At the end of the summer, they present their work publicly both as a poster and with a scientific talk.
In 2018, Columbus Audubon funds made it possible for us to hire a second college student intern in this program for the summer of 2018, so two talented undergraduates could carry out work on the Lights Out Cleveland data and specimens. Moira Meehan is an undergraduate at Ohio Wesleyan University, and Stephanie Secic is an undergraduate at The Ohio State University. They spent the summer working in the collection, preparing specimens from Lights Out Cleveland’s Fall 2017 casualties. With Museum staff, they prepared over 500 specimens for the research collection, mostly as skeletons, spread wings, and tissues. They each took on their own research projects, drawing from the Lights Out Cleveland Fall 2017 data. Moira looked at which sides of which buildings pose the greatest dangers to birds. Across downtown Cleveland, there are pretty equal numbers of collisions on the north, east, south, and west sides. However, patterns for each individual building vary widely. The culprit seems to be how close they are to green spaces. Building facades that face green spaces are apparently more dangerous to birds, and we think that this is because birds try to fly into the habitats that they are seeing reflected in the glass. Stephanie’s work focused on the more than twenty species of warblers that migrate through Cleveland each year. She downloaded eBird data to track the abundance of each species of warbler in the county, as reported by the state’s many active eBird contributors. She then compared this to each species’ frequency in the Lights Out Cleveland dataset. While there is a strong relationship between the abundance of the birds and how often they collide with buildings, there were some strong outliers. Common Yellowthroats collide with buildings much more frequently that we expect, based on eBird reports. Meanwhile Yellow-rumped Warblers are the most commonly reported bird in the county in the fall, but they are not very common colliders. Connecticut Warbler was not reported by any birder to eBird in the Fall of 2017, but there were nearly a dozen collisions in downtown Cleveland. Additional work will be needed to understand why some species are more likely to collide than others.
Both students completed their own statistical analyses of their work and presented them at the Museum in August 2018, to Columbus Audubon in September 2018, and during the Ohio Avian Research Conference in October 2018. They were also co-authors on a talk that covered Lights Out Cleveland’s research efforts, presented at the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference in Cleveland in January 2019.