Lights Out Columbus: a community approach to avian conservation

Matthew B. Shumar
Program Coordinator, Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative

 

March 29, 2018: some three months after our 10th wedding anniversary, my wife and I finally made it to our planned destination for a quick getaway. The infamous Pipeline Road in Gamboa, Panama has lived up to every enthusiastic description that birders have concocted. The past two days have been completely different experiences, with the second outing nearly doubling our bird list. Multiple Trogon species vocalize continually throughout our time on the trail, and we get excellent views of exciting species like Dot-winged Antwren, Yellow-throated Toucan, and Great Jacamar. This experience is quickly grounded when my binoculars scan to a foraging female Black-and-white Warbler creeping along a nearby tree. Farther along the trail we find Eastern Wood-Pewees, a Great Crested Flycatcher, Scarlet and Summer tanagers, and a Swainson’s Thrush. “Hello friend, see you soon!” I mumble as I watch them each forage voraciously to help fuel their journey.

Migration: it’s that exciting event that shakes birders from the winter doldrums, and injects vitality and excitement into the new year. For birds, this is yet another cycle in the push to sustain life. Many of these species traverse thousands of miles to exploit resources available in temperate and tropical regions of the globe at different times of the year. The risk is high, but the reward is even higher. At least, that’s been the tradeoff in the past.

Migration as it turns out, is one of the most perilous periods in a bird’s annual life cycle. This is increasingly true as we develop the landscape at breakneck speeds, evolutionarily speaking. So, how risky is migration? Long-term research on Black-throated Blue Warblers, for example, has shown that mortality during migration is at least 15-times higher than during the breeding or overwintering periods (Sillett & Holmes 2002). More than 85% of apparent annual mortality of these Black-throated Blue Warblers occurred during migration.

This movement from overwintering locations in Central and South America to and from breeding grounds in temperate North America proves challenging enough in a natural system: the combination of unpredictable weather and increased exposure to predation for thousands of miles is nothing to bat an eye at. Add on top of that loss of stopover habitat over an increasingly developed landscape as well as countless obstacles in urban areas, and you have a rather daunting journey—one that is made twice each year!

Most songbirds migrate at night, guided in part by celestial cues. Like the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, artificial light sources in urban centers prove to be a perilous attraction for many passage migrants. Birds can collide with illuminated structures at night, but more substantial effects of brightly lit metropolitan areas occur through changes in stopover behavior. The skyglow of large urban centers can be perceived by migrating birds up to 300 km away (Olsen et al. 2014), and recent research has shown that migrant stopover density increases at regional scales with proximity to the brightest areas and is subsequently lower in high-quality forested habitats even a few kilometers away from urban centers (McLaren et al. 2018). It is in these urban landscapes that collision risk is magnified: highly reflective glass is often perceived by birds as an extension of the surrounding vegetation and sky.

Building collisions are second only to predation by free-ranging domestic cats as the largest source of human-caused mortality in birds, and it is estimated that between 365 million and nearly one billion birds are killed by collisions each year in the United States (Loss et al. 2014). “Lights Out” and “Safe Passage” programs across the globe have been developed in an attempt to address this problem. The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) of Toronto was the first organization in the world to address the issue of bird collisions with buildings. Since 1993 volunteers have been working with Toronto business owners to treat reflective glass and reduce nighttime lighting, and they have picked up tens of thousands of dead and injured birds during their monitoring. Unfortunately most birds are found dead, but those that are found alive have a high chance of successful rehabilitation and release.

Credit: TIM JASINSKI

Encouraged by the success of FLAP, Chicago launched their own program (Lights Out Chicago) in 1995, and similar efforts have been replicated throughout the United States. In 2012, the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative (OBCI) started a Lights Out Columbus campaign with support from Columbus Audubon, the Columbus Zoo, the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, and the Ohio Wildlife Center. Seven buildings in downtown Columbus enrolled in the program during the first year, and enrollment has steadily increased over the past seven years.

Starting in mid-March of each year, building owners, managers, and residents are encouraged to reduce exterior nighttime lighting during peak bird migration periods. From March 15 through June 1, and August 15 through October 31, building managers are encouraged to reduce their lighting as much as possible by doing the following: eliminate architectural lighting and spotlights; eliminate upper floor interior lights when not in use; use blinds and/or task lighting when interior lighting is required overnight; eliminate or dim atrium lighting; use shielded (downward facing) lighting for walkways.

While the primary objective of this effort was to reduce the number bird collisions as much as possible, there are also many benefits for business owners and residents, including positive gains in public relations, reductions in CO2 emissions, and potentially substantial cost savings. For example, Lights Out Wilmington estimated savings of $5,148 per year for a 20-story building participating in the Lights Out program (http://lightsoutwilm.com). In an attempt to understand enrollment motivations and increase participation, we surveyed business owners in Columbus after the first year of the program. The vast majority of respondents cited that the primary driver for their enrollment was to show consumers that they were an environmentally friendly or “green” company. To help them reach that goal, we created signs that businesses could display in their entrances and lobbies showing participation. We also included the company’s logos on our website and in advertising for the program. We have seen a positive response to these actions, and we now have over half of the tallest buildings in downtown Columbus enrolled in Lights Out.

Given the success we observed in Columbus, we began growing the effort into a statewide network—Ohio Lights Out. In 2015 we launched Lights Out Miami Valley (Dayton area) with the help of Brukner Nature Center, Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm, Five Rivers Metroparks, Daytona BOMA, and Partners for the Environment. Over the last four years, Lights Out Miami Valley has enrolled nearly 30 buildings across a six county area. In 2017, we continued expanding coverage with the launch of Lights Out Cleveland—a collaborative effort of OBCI, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland Metroparks, Lake Erie Nature & Science Center (LENSC), and the Akron Zoo. The expansion to Cleveland was a crucially important development of the project, as research has shown that migrating landbirds tend to concentrate in coastal areas, especially when they are direct barriers along migratory routes. Indeed, if you talk to any Cleveland-based birdwatcher, you’re bound to hear about the myriad of excellent birding opportunities around the city.

The volunteer collision monitoring program for downtown Cleveland was able to successfully recruit a fervent volunteer base of nearly 100 individuals. This team, active daily during migration, has recovered a staggering 5,000 birds in just two years. Although we suspected higher rates of bird-building collisions in Cleveland given the city’s proximity to Lake Erie, we were still surprised by the magnitude of collision numbers. Injured birds are taken to the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center for rehabilitation, and dead birds are processed and put into the collections at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Credit: TIM JASINSKI

While we work within the community to mitigate collision risk, the large number of collected specimens allows us to explore factors associated with collisions. Last year the Cleveland Museum of Natural History hired two college interns to assess factors associated with collision rates, with financial support from Columbus Audubon. Additionally, we have been collaborating with researchers from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to explore survival and behavior of birds following collisions. A sample of injured birds recovered from collision monitoring efforts that had undergone successful rehabilitation were fitted with VHF transmitters operating on the same frequency (i.e., nanotags). These nanotags are detectible by automated receiving stations in the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. Data collected from tagged birds will provide insight not only into the long term effects of window collisions on individuals, but also population level consequences that as of yet have been unquantified through traditional citizen science based collision monitoring programs.

This year, the Ohio Wildlife Center has taken the charge to reinitiate a collision monitoring program in downtown Columbus. Volunteers are monitoring downtown seven days a week, and help is always needed. If you’d like to become a part of the effort, you can contact Katelyn Tullos, the Lights Out Columbus volunteer coordinator at educationsupport@ohiowildlifecenter.org.

Along with expanding the scope of our Columbus and Cleveland efforts, additional cities within Ohio have joined the network. We now have focused Lights Out programs running in Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo, which targets the bulk of the state’s metropolitan areas. We also encourage building owners and even private homeowners in other reaches of Ohio to participate. Every building makes a difference. For more information on Ohio Lights Out and the regional programs, please visit https://ohiolightsout.org/.

 

References:

Loss, S. R., T. Will, S. S. Loss, and P. P. Mara. 2014. Bird–building collisions in the United States: Estimates of annual mortality and species vulnerability. The Condor: Ornithological Applications 116:8–23.

McLaren, J. D., J. J. Buler, T. Schreckengost, J. A. Smolinsky, M. Boone, E. E. van Loon, D. K. Dawson, and E. L. Walters. 2018. Artificial light at night confounds broad-scale habitat use by migrating birds. Ecology Letters 21: 356-364.

Olsen, R. N., T. Gallaway, and D. Mitchell. 2014. Modelling US light pollution. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 57:883-903.

Sillett, T. S. and R. T. Holmes. 2002. Variation in survivorship of a migratory songbird throughout its annual cycle. Journal of Animal Ecology 71: 296–308.