With the flicks of a few light switches, Austin and Travis County government officials are taking migratory birds under their wings, but it’s too early to know whether their efforts are hatching positive results.
To protect birds that migrate at night, Austin and Travis County officials have committed to turning off non-essential lights in certain government buildings during the two annual migration seasons. It’s part of the broader Lights Out Austin initiative, which asks businesses, residents, and government agencies to shut off lights at night during bird migration periods.
Earlier this year, Austin City Council members and Travis County commissioners passed resolutions supporting Lights Out Austin. The city’s and county’s lights-off efforts got into full swing this fall.
Nicole Netherton, executive director of Travis Audubon, an Austin-based nature conservancy group that co-sponsors Lights Out Austin, says it’s too soon to tell whether the program is working. Why? There’s just not enough evidence — in the dreadful form of dead birds — or data yet.
“It’s actually pretty hard to intercept dead birds without a large number of volunteers going out very, very early,” Netherton says. “Predators and cleanup crews often get to the birds before our volunteers can, and sometimes the birds fall in places that aren’t visible to people on the street.”
In Austin, Lights Out efforts call on non-essential building lights to be switched off from 11 pm-6 am during the August-to-November fall migration and during the March-to-May spring migration.
“We would love to see the people in every building in Austin, whether a business or a residence, turn off lights and be as bird-friendly as possible, especially during migration,” Netherton says. “It saves money and helps both humans and birds. Slow and steady progress will really make a difference over time.”
City-operated downtown buildings in Austin that participated during this year’s fall migration include City Hall, One Texas Center, the Central Library, the Austin Convention Center, and the Palmer Events Center.
A recent memo from the City of Austin notes the lights-off campaign this fall presented some challenges for city-run buildings. For instance, security officers patrolling the Central Library at night activated sensors that then switched on lights.
“Partnerships with private entities, including increasing participation among owners of tall buildings, will be paramount in making a tangible difference in our downtown skyline,” the memo says.
The nonprofit conservation group Texan by Nature says shutting off lights at night helps save the lives of migrating birds by decreasing the number of bird collisions with brightly lit buildings. This lighting “attracts and disorients these migrating birds, confusing them and making them vulnerable to collisions with buildings and other urban threats,” according to the City of Austin.
The statewide Lights Out Texas program targets buildings at least three stories high, as they pose the greatest risk to birds flying at night. Texan by Nature and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology lead the Texas initiative.
Each year, close to 2 billion birds travel through Texas. That represents one-fourth of all birds migrating throughout the country each fall and one-third of those migrating each spring. Annually, run-ins with buildings kill as many as 1 billion in the U.S.
While building lights in Austin jeopardize birds, our feathered friends are worse off in two other Texas cities.
A study published in 2019 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology ranked Chicago, Houston, and Dallas as the most dangerous metros in the continental U.S. for migrating birds during both the spring and fall.
“Those three cities are uniquely positioned in the heart of North America’s most trafficked aerial corridors. This, in combination with being some of the largest cities in the U.S., makes them a serious threat to the passage of migrants, regardless of season,” researcher Kyle Horton, one of the authors of the study, says in a Cornell news release.
Houston appeared at No. 2 on the list, and Dallas at No. 3. San Antonio ranked 10th. Austin didn’t show up in the top 10.