Dimming NYC's Bright Lights to Save Migrating Birds

The bright lights of Manhattan skyscrapers have long drawn out-of-towners to New York City, many of whom are unprepared for the dangers of urban living. Now, those bewildered visitors include thousands of migrating birds. The Audubon Society of New York wants the city's tallest buildings to turn off their lights overnight to keep scores of migrating birds from crashing into them.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

If you don't like animal stories, the next few moments are going to be--ruff. We have cats and birds starting here. It's fall for millions of North American birds. That means migration time. But for thousands of them, it also may mean death from flying into skyscrapers. The problem is worse at night, which is why this year bird lovers in New York are hoping to do something about it. They are asking the world's most famous skyline that looks glorious at night to turn out those lights late at night. Now from New York here is NPR's Luke Burbank with a report.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

If you had to make a list of wildlife-rich cities around the country, you'd be forgiven if New York didn't exactly jump to mind. Seemingly endless stretches of concrete and glass give the city a distinctly unnatural feel. But when it comes to birds, at least, it turns out New York is actually teeming with life. Some five million birds travel through Manhattan during fall and spring migration alone, many of them visiting Central Park. So it was only fitting that a recent news conference concerning bird welfare took place in the middle of the park on the roof of what used to be a military installation.

Mr. ADRIAN BENEPE (Parks Commissioner): Well, good morning, everybody, and welcome to the Arsenal roof. My name is Adrian Benepe. I'm the parks commissioner, and it's appropriate that we're having this event on the Arsenal Roof, because it's the best place to get a bird's-eye view of Central Park and New York City.

BURBANK: All puns aside, the message was actually serious: New York's skyline is dangerous territory for birds on the wing. E.J. McAdams heads the city's Audubon Society.

Mr. E.J. McADAMS (Audubon Society): Basically what happens is that lights draw birds to them, sort of like the moth to the flame. In foggy and cloudy weather, they can collide with buildings.

BURBANK: You see, birds use visual cues, like the stars and the moon, to guide them when they migrate. So lights on tall buildings can be disorienting. As a result, about 10,000 kestrels, dark-eyed juncos and others perish each year around the country. To drive the point home, and to make the assembled TV cameras happy, the Audubon Society even produced a red-tailed hawk that had flown into a building in Scarsdale and had a missing eye to prove it.

Unidentified Woman: This one is a female. She did lose her eye. She was--she had head trauma and...

(Soundbite of hawk's wings flapping)

Unidentified Woman: She gets nervous...

Unidentified Man: Any other questions...

BURBANK: This being radio, it's difficult to convey properly just how frightening it was to be there: crouched on a roof in Central Park next to a nervous one-eyed hawk. The bird did make for good video, though, which helped publicize the reason for the press conference in the first place: an initiative to get New York's tallest buildings to turn off their lights after midnight. And Steve Spinola, president of the New York Real Estate Board, was there to help.

Mr. STEVE SPINOLA (New York Real Estate Board): We had a meeting this morning of my management board of directors who manage all of these tall buildings, and they welcomed the request and basically said they were going to do it.

BURBANK: So a week from now, if I go up to a vantage point and look around, is the skyline of Manhattan going to look really different?

Mr. SPINOLA: It will look a little dark. It'll reflect the halo that is New York, that sits over New York regularly.

BURBANK: Well, let's find out. It's exactly a week later. It's 12:30 at night, and I'm standing on Roosevelt Island, located just across the East River from Midtown Manhattan. In fact, right across from me is the Chrysler Building, one of the most recognizable skyscrapers in the city, and would you believe its lights are completely out? Would you believe all the lights on all the tall buildings seem to be completely out? If I was a bird trying to migrate through New York, I think tonight would be a pretty good night for it. And even though this is the city that supposedly doesn't sleep, Manhattan at least seems pretty quiet. Luke Burbank, NPR News, New York.

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