For the Birds: Flock of D.C. volunteers proves ‘Lights Out’ in buildings saves lives of winged migrants

WASHINGTON—Jack O. Lantern, the 17-pound pumpkin-orange rescue cat I adopted on Halloween, stood frozen in place on the side porch. I traced the arc of his unblinking amber eyes to a beaked ball of fluffy feathers trying to camouflage in a bed of sedum a few feet away.

Seconds later, an adult robin landed on my neighbor’s trash bin and chirped a series of alerts to her fledgling charge. If I could speak birdese, I would have urged that vigilant mother to relax. Jack is strictly an indoor cat. Our screened-in porch is his window on a natural world that he can observe—not touch.

But I sympathized with that parent’s fear because I can’t protect her babies from other roaming felines. Relentless four-legged hunters aren’t the only man-made threat placing birds in peril.

Climate change is disrupting their diet and nesting habits. And, perhaps more surprisingly, urban glass buildings cause frequent deadly encounters for winged migrants disoriented by the glow of inside illumination.

Alarm about that latter hazard is spreading. Scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute estimate that bird-on-building strikes kill up to a billion birds per year. Hundreds of those deaths occur in Washington, D.C., as migrants traverse the Atlantic Flyway between their feeding and breeding grounds.

An indigo bunting was among the casualties collected by a Lights Out DC volunteer in spring 2016.

City Wildlife, a tiny but robust non-profit, has spearheaded an effort called Lights Out D.C. to reverse that trend by deploying citizen scientists to collect data, collaborating with managers of problem edifices and urging the city to include bird-safe construction in its green building code.

A voluntary measure covering new construction, being crafted by the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), would require mayoral review and D.C. Council approval. No firm timeline on its rollout has yet been set, says DOEE spokeswoman Julia Robey Christian. 

“Other jurisdictions have already undertaken bird-safe construction provisions, so DOEE will not be reinventing the wheel,” City Wildlife president and co-founder Anne Lewis tells Renewal News. “But the fact that it’s the nation’s capital will carry a lot of weight.”

Lewis initiated Lights Out D.C. in 2010 with City Wildlife co-founder Jim Monsma, who directs a wildlife rehabilitation center in Gaithersburg, Md. Similar bird awareness projects have spread to Baltimore, San Francisco, New York and a score of North American cities since Toronto launched one in the early 1990s.

“That first day we went out and looked around glass buildings and didn’t find any birds,” Lewis explains. “We thought maybe this wouldn’t work her in D.C. On the second day, we found a dead bird in the gutter and decided, we’re going to do this.”

Since then, she and a dedicated cadre, equipped with a salvage permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have patrolled parts of the city daily during the spring and autumn migration seasons. The routes have evolved with the bird data. Now, roughly 30 volunteers scour glass-heavy sections of Capitol Hill and Chinatown.

While no volunteer begrudges Washington its recent renaissance, their bird’s eye view of new development can be a painful burden.

“Here we are picking up dead birds,” notes Lewis, a retired architect, “and they’re constructing glass buildings across the street.”

Ideally, any such new building would incorporate patterned glass that sends a visual “look-out” warning to traveling birds.

“Bird People” Make Their Rounds

At 5:30 a.m. on the last Saturday in May, two guards at the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building immediately recognize volunteer Stephanie Dalke as one of the “bird people.”

Lights Out D.C. volunteer Stephanie Dalke sorts dead common yellowthroats collected in the city during 2016. Common yellowthroats and ovenbirds, both warblers, and white-throated sparrow are among the top three migrant species that die from building strikes.

The architecturally appealing structure on Columbus Circle near Union Station is the starting point for Dalke’s four-mile avian scouting trip.

And for good reason. Perch-filled live trees inside its fully lit, five-story glass atrium can be a deadly nighttime magnet for fatigued birds seeking respite as they journey thousands of miles to their northern homes in April and May and their southern ones in September and October.

Fortunately, that high death rate has tapered off since the Architect of the Capitol agreed to dim the lights overnight several years ago, making the trees less visible.

Dalke dons comfortable shoes and a backpack containing a flashlight and net for spotting and scooping birds, sealable bags to preserve bird bodies, and paper bags to provide stunned birds a safer, confined space to recover in before being released in a park. She documents any find with her camera, even if it’s only remnant feathers plastered to a glass transom.

“It’s definitely heartbreaking,” says three-year volunteer Dalke, who has found a depressing number of white-throated sparrows, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, common yellowthroats and ovenbirds (the latter two are warbler species). “Most people don’t realize these cool migratory birds are coming right through the city.”

While Dalke praises her adopted home town for preserving pockets of green, she says the design of adjacent buildings is a life or death matter for birds.

Dalke, a birder since her Oklahoma childhood, often squeezes in her City Wildlife shift before starting her workday at a conservation non-profit. Migrants navigate aided by the night sky, so volunteers are out before sunrise to try to beat hungry crows, four-legged predators or hose-wielding janitorial staffs to their quarry.

She has chatted up maintenance workers, convincing some to save bird bodies instead of pitching them into the Dumpster. And they’re used to her checking hedges, flowerbeds and other hidden nooks for victims.

Dalke has developed hawk-like vision for lifeless birds, but is always relieved when a winged-looking lump is merely a crumpled wrapper or other piece of litter.

“You don’t want to find dead birds, but if they are, you want them to be part of the record,” she says. “We need a lot more data, here in the city and nationally.”

Data Point to Specific D.C. Problem Buildings

Indeed, agrees Lewis.

D.C. buildings usually claim between 200 and 300 bird victims per year, representing at least 50 species. The total spiked inexplicably in 2014 when volunteers collected 414 birds.

Woodpeckers of all types are victims of building strikes as they migrate through D.C.

City Wildlife is still crunching numbers for the last two years, but records consistently reveal the chief five culprits as: the Thurgood Marshall Building; the D.C. Convention Center near Mount Vernon Square, particularly the L Street NW overpass; the D.C. Court of Appeals, 430 E St. NW; TechWorld, 800 K St. NW; and a private office complex at 300 New Jersey Avenue NW.

More recently, as the collection routes have been modified, buildings at 400-444 N. Capitol St. NW and 601 New Jersey Avenue NW have also emerged as bird bafflers.

“We can state categorically that these particular buildings are consistent problems,” says Lewis, each with its own bird obstacles.

For instance, glass-enclosed walkways at the Convention Center and TechWorld fool birds into thinking they have clear passage. The mirrored glass of behemoths such as TechWorld doubles that trouble by tricking the bird with reflected imagery of real-looking sky and trees.

Lewis suspects that the faux-branch appearance of exterior-interior cable trusses at 300 New Jersey Avenue NW is a fatal lure for birds coming in for a landing.

City Wildlife, in conjunction with DOEE, has been especially successful with its united pitch to managers of public buildings that setting lights low overnight is a boon to their budgets.

For example, annual energy savings at the Thurgood Marshall atrium amount to $36,500, says Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Laura Condeluci.

“We started with a gentle prod by asking property managers to lower window blinds, turn lights out and move plants away from windows,” says DOEE’s Mary Lynn Wilhere.

DOEE laid out a few simple suggestions on informational posters distributed to property managers.

Lewis emphasizes that numbers collected by volunteers are only a sampling and that the jury is still out whether measures taken thus far will achieve the long-term goal of protecting migrants.

“It’s too soon to tell,” she explains. “What we have is so micro that we haven’t been able to draw conclusive results yet.”

One tidbit that thrills her is that fewer birds are dying at the Thurgood Marshall building because the darker interior serves as an early warning signal.

“The birds are slowing down because they’re not sure if they’re seeing trees or not,” Lewis says. “They’re stunned because they’re not colliding with the force they used to.”

Citizen Science: Groundwork for Rigorous Research

A golden-crowned kinglet was one of the smallest victims among hundreds collected in 2016 by City Wildlife volunteers.

Light-dimming is the low-hanging fruit for City Wildlife. Lewis and her colleagues have a slew of other recommendations for property managers seeking guidance on bird-safe retrofits.

The cheapest among a bevy of solutions available is window film manufactured with a specific vertical or horizontal pattern of lines.

“Each building has its own pathology,” she says, adding that managers worried about an extreme hit to their wallet are relieved to discover that “usually the problem area is small.”

Stunned birds can usually recover, so very few end up being rehabilitated. However, most glass encounters kill birds, and they die of massive brain damage, not a broken neck.

Even in death, however, the birds give their lives to science.

A City Wildlife volunteer sorts dead woodcocks as the Lights Out D.C. program prepares to turn over birds collected in 2016 to the Smithsonian Institution’s Migratory Bird Center.

Volunteers store collected specimens in their home freezers. Each one is identified, catalogued and tagged. Once a year, Lewis turns her Georgetown living room into a morgue of sorts where frozen birds are catalogued and photographed before City Wildlife delivers them to the Migratory Bird Center at the Smithsonian Institution.

Museums use the birds to enrich their collections and scientists study them to track evolution in particular species.

While losing any bird is tough, it’s especially excruciating for volunteers to find wood thrushes. D.C. adopted the speckle-breasted species as its official bird in 1938. As well, wood thrushes, ovenbirds, American woodcocks, grasshopper sparrows, worm-eating warblers and brown creepers are on DOEE’s current list of at least 58 bird species that need special attention because of their dwindling numbers.

Lewis is fully aware that the data collected by volunteers are neither perfect nor exhaustive.

However, those numbers can contribute to rigorous research. For instance, UCLA scientists studying migration patterns examine the feathers of common yellowthroats and hermit thrushes that City Wildlife collects as part of a genetic mapping project.

Lewis is amazed so many volunteers have stuck with the program since its inception.

“Citizen science is a great tool for engagement and education,” she says. “We claim that Lights Out is somewhat addictive. And it makes you start looking at all buildings with a very different and critical eye.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn about basics about birds, check out The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Bird Watching by Jonny Anderson at Hobby Help.

City Wildlife volunteers met recently to catalog the birds Lights Out D.C. volunteers collected during spring and fall 2016 migration seasons.

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth H. McGowan is a Washington, D.C.-based, award-winning energy and environment reporter. As a staff writer for InsideClimate News, her groundbreaking dispatches from Kalamazoo, Mich., “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. An e-book version of the narrative won the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Elizabeth, who started her career at daily newspapers in Vermont and Wisconsin, has served as a Washington correspondent for Crain Communications, Penton Media, and most recently, Energy Intelligence. Her freelance news reports and features have also appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine; Washingtonian magazine; Intelligent Utility magazine; Outdoor America (magazine of the Izaak Walton League); the journal Appalachia; Capital Community News; the Gulf of Maine Times; Mizzou, the alumni magazine for the University of Missouri; Lore, the magazine of the Milwaukee Public Museum; and Nature Conservancy magazine Elizabeth’s latest reporting venture is Renewal News, a start-up that explores the intersection of nature, labor and energy. The idea is to tell stories about how U.S. communities are evolving as climate change forces all sectors to re-examine their relationship with a fossil-fuel dominant economy.

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