Janet McIntosh: Turn off the lights — birds overhead!

Opinion: Millions of migrating birds use the Pacific Flyway between now until mid-October, and artificial light at night can throw them off course. But there are a few easy, free ways any of us can help

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Here in the Lower Mainland, we are directly under a heavily used migratory bird route. The Pacific Flyway extends along our west coast all the way from the Arctic to the tip of South America. During the fall migration, we see only a fraction of the millions of birds heading south. This is because they fly mainly under cover of darkness, with most taking flight after sunset, and the greatest number airborne two to three hours later. Flying at an altitude as high as 1,000 meters, they use the moon, the stars and geographical landmarks to navigate.

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The Cornell University Bird Dashboard tracks bird migration over each American state. At the peak of the 2022 fall migration, over nine million birds flew over Washington state on one night (Sept. 17) — almost all on their way south from B.C.

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Since electric power became available, humans have been adding light on the ground. The negative effect of artificial light at night on migrating birds has been well documented. The birds may circle, call to each other, descend to a lower level, fly toward the lights, or land near the lights. All of these activities use the birds’ energy, and reduce their chances of successfully completing their long-distance migrations.

With the advent of cheaper and brighter LED lighting, the amount of artificial light has dramatically increased. Businesses have long used lighting to draw attention to themselves. Private homes are now doing the same, turning on decorative roof, wall, or landscape lighting every night. Some highrise buildings have added lighting, creating a lighthouse effect. Others are using tubular lighting to accent their architectural lines.

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Portland, Ore., sends a Lights Out alert on nights when peak numbers of birds are expected, with a plea to reduce lighting to avoid luring the birds off-course. Toronto has a similar program. As we watch the signs of a rapidly changing environment with trepidation, many of us are considering what we can do to make at least a small difference.

Here are a few ways any of us can help migrating birds make it south between now and mid-October. Each action is easy to take, lowers energy usage, reduces consumption of materials, costs nothing, and will help some of our fellow creatures in the natural world:

• Turn off the lights when leaving the office or home.

• Use the minimum necessary indoor lighting, and close blinds to prevent light escaping.

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• Turn off or dim lobby and atrium lighting.

• Turn off exterior lighting except as needed for safety and security.

• Direct security lighting downward where it is needed, and install a motion sensor rather than leaving the lights on all night.

These are small actions that can add up to a clear benefit to migrating birds.

Reducing artificial light in our communities will also help other living creatures needing a dark period every 24 hours for foraging, for reproductive behaviour, or (like humans) for rest and recovery. Reducing lighting will also lower energy consumption, and extend the life of bulbs and light fixtures eventually destined for recycling or landfills.

Remember our velvety night sky of 50 years ago? Wouldn’t it be a pleasure to stand outside in the moonlight and look up to see that same sky once again hung with thousands of stars? Knowing the birds can navigate more easily?

Between now and mid-October, turn off the lights — birds overhead!

Janet McIntosh is a retired educator and a member of the White Rock and Surrey Naturalists Society, with a special interest in how artificial light at night impacts birds, insects, wildlife and the communities in which we humans live. 

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