robin going through rehabilitation

Birds have adapted in amazing ways in order to migrate long distances — but they evolved long before humans invented buildings and artificial light. Lisbeth Fuisz sees the problem this causes as a volunteer for Lights Out DC, one of many programs across North America that count birds that strike buildings during migration season.

The D.C. Crew

A small troupe of dedicated bird lovers meets at 5:30 a.m. and checks for downed birds along two predetermined routes. They're trained on how to handle injured birds and have the proper permits. "Migratory birds are protected by law, so you can't just go around picking up birds," Fuisz says.

Some birds are rescued, but for many it's too late. "When I answered the ad for volunteers, it said, 'You have to be comfortable with live and dead birds,'" she says.

Their equipment is simple. Injured birds are picked up with a net and transferred to a paper bag with a napkin on the bottom for the bird to hold on to. The bag is clipped shut to keep it dark, so the bird feels safe and stays quiet. "Most birds, if they're going to recover, generally by the end of the route the bird is fluttering in the bag and you know it's ready to be released," she says. They're taken to Rock Creek Park, as far away from buildings as possible.

The dead birds are carefully recorded because the goal of Lights Out is to document the problem and persuade building owners to turn out the lights at night so they won't attract birds. And it's working. One of the D.C. group's big successes has been the Thurgood Marshall federal building, which has a beautiful glass atrium full of trees that birds try to fly into when it is lit up at night. "There was about a two-thirds reduction in the death of birds we were finding after they agreed to turn off their lights at night," she says.

Fuisz also passes on the data to scientists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. And the dead birds contribute to science in another way — they go to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. "It feels good that the bird hasn't just been thrown in the trash can," she says.

Birds vs. Buildings

Lights Out started in Toronto, where a combination of weather and geography led to mass strikes that killed hundreds of birds at the same time. But according to Christine Sheppard of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), we now understand that the problem is much broader. It has been discovered that certain kinds of light not only attract birds, but also interfere with their magnetic navigation senses. And tall buildings at night are not the only problem.

"The one thing that we have really good data on is, it's the amount of light, not the height of the building," she says.

And homes actually kill more birds than skyscrapers — a problem that's harder to notice because it's spread out. "Everybody has seen a bird hit a window or heard a bird hit a window, and everybody thinks it's unusual," she says. "But multiply even one bird times the number of homes and small buildings in the country and you come up with 100 million."

And most strikes occur during the day, when birds mistake the reflection of the sky on glass for the actual sky.

building with several glass windows and a walkway

The World to a Bird

To protect birds, you have to understand how they see the world. Surprisingly, although some birds have amazing, even "eagle-eyed" sight, most birds have much worse vision than we do.

"Raptors have forward-facing eyes. They're hunters. They have all kinds of adaptations to be eagle-eyed," she says, "but if you're a warbler, that is not the way you live your life. The food that you're eating is basically at your feet — you're poking around looking for insects, looking at seeds and bugs."

Also, because there's nothing like glass in the natural world, it's not something birds can understand. "What you put on the window does not cue the birds that there is glass there," Sheppard says. "Birds don't learn that."

So those popular decals that look like hawks are unhelpful — birds just don't understand it, Sheppard says. "To a bird it looks like a black blob that they could fly around."

Keeping Birds Safe

The simplest solution for a home, Sheppard says, is something that's useful anyway: Window screens eliminate the reflection of the sky without blocking your view from inside.

Another approach is to put something on the window that birds will perceive as a physical barrier. ABC has developed a special tape that's inexpensive and long-lasting, but you can use anything as long as it's applied in the correct spacing, which is closer than many products instruct. "It relates to the body size of the bird," she says. "A small warbler with its wings stretched out can slip through a two-inch horizontal space."

Both screens and decals need to be on the outside of the windows. "If you put it on the inside, the reflection on the outside can completely overwhelm the image on the inside," she says. If you have a bird feeder, it's especially important to eliminate reflections on windows near it, including the reflection of the feeder, and it's a misconception that it helps to simply put it closer.

Lights Out!

If you're in a high-rise without access to the outside of windows, blinds left partially open can help. "You want to create that spacing they think they can't fly through," Sheppard says. And at work, ask the manager of your office building to turn the lights out.

"It's always good to turn lights out because you're saving energy, and that saves birds in a completely different way," Sheppard says. "The bottom line is there's no downside to turning lights out." And it might be quite simple: Many buildings now have a switch in the basement that will turn the lights out or down at a particular time.

If your city has a Lights Out program, volunteer; and if not, start one up. It's not only helpful to birds, Fuisz says, but it's also rewarding. "It gives you an opportunity that's very unusual to see birds up close," she says. "It's sort of heartbreaking, but when you save a bird, that feels great."

Find out if there's a Lights Out program in your area.