Helping Birds Migrate Safely Through New York City
© NYC Audubon
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Birds encounter many challenges in New York City: Light from buildings at night. Trees and plants behind glass. Reflection of trees in glass windows. Many species of birds, including such beloved songsters as warblers, tanagers, orioles and thrushes, migrate at night. In spring, these birds come from South and Central America on their way to their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Canada and the tundra of the Arctic. Many pass through New York City along what ornithologists call the Atlantic Flyway. In the fall, the migrating birds pass through our city again, now with inexperienced youngsters, and head back to the distant south.
Located at the nexus of several migratory routes, New York City’s tall buildings and reflective glass pose a serious threat to over 100 species of migratory birds, some of which are experiencing long-term population declines.
The threat that urban areas present to migratory birds is two-fold:
Nocturnally migrating birds can be disoriented by light and become “trapped” by illuminated structures. Throughout modern history, clouds of birds have been observed fluttering around lit-up structures, such as lighthouses, bridges and skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.
Death by Collision
by F. Portmann
When lit-up skyscrapers project into birds' migratory airspace, the birds are attracted to the glow. Trapped like moths at a porch light, they are vulnerable to colliding with the structures or even each other. Under certain weather conditions birds have be seen fluttering around lights for hours! Some perish. Some continue to struggle until daylight breaks. Then, these exhausted birds land in whatever trees or shrubs they can find along our city streets… where they encounter other perils in an inhospitable environment.
Death by Collision
by F. Portmann
Migrating birds may mistake a dangerous building for a safe resting place. This can occur in two ways. A building that has plants or trees behind glass can actually attract birds. As they fly around looking for food and perches they can injure themselves or even die by crashing into the glass. A second way a building can be perilous to migrating birds is by presenting highly reflective glass near the greenery found in parks large and small. Again, birds see a safe haven where there isn't one, and will collide with the building.
The problem is that birds cannot perceive the solid nature of the glass in either of these situations, and attempt to fly through. Some experts maintain that after habitat destruction, glass poses a greater threat to birds than any other human effect or activity. A conservative estimate puts the number of birds killed annually in the U.S. from striking windows at 100 million.
In short, death or injury for migrating wildlife occurs all too frequently in our city.
All Window Strikes
© NYC Audubon
NYC Audubon's Project Safe Flight
Project Safe Flight was started by a few dedicated volunteers in 1997 to work to protect these birds. Continuing every year since then, Project Safe Flight's conservation efforts focus on collision prevention, rescuing injured birds and counting those that have perished. This work is performed by many diligent and dedicated volunteers.
During spring and autumn migration periods, volunteers patrol the streets of New York City in search of dead and injured birds that have collided with buildings. Injured birds are brought to animal care centers or rehabilitators and are released in the wild after their recovery. Dead birds are collected and transferred to the New York State University in Albany. All the collected birds (dead or injured) are entered in our database, providing a powerful tool for understanding the geography and dynamics of urban bird collisions.
Project Safe Flight Injured Warbler
© NYC Audubon
Since the program’s inception in 1997, over 5,000 dead and injured birds have been collected and documented in our database. Project Safe Flight’s Research Program improves our understanding of the causes behind urban bird collisions, and studies ways to prevent bird collisions from occurring. Our successes include the retrofitting of the Morgan Mail Processing Facility (421 8th Avenue), and our collaboration on the widely distributed Bird-Friendly Building Design (an update of our previously published Bird-Safe Building Guidelines).
In 2014 we added an important tool to Project Safe Flight: D-Bird. An online crowd-sourcing data collection tool, D-Bird provides a way for the public to enter records of dead or injured birds, contributing to our Project Safe Flight research. Crowd-sourced data can help to provide context and guidance for more scientifically rigorous research efforts, such as the traditional Project Safe Flight monitoring protocols. If you find a dead or injured bird, you can click here to submit a report through D-Bird. Periodically, NYC Audubon staff will analyze these reports and work to integrate and relate these results to existing Project Safe Flight research. Below you can see a frequently updated map of the data already submitted through D-Bird. You can view specific entries by placing your mouse over each data point on the map.
Overall Research Findings
Since the inception of Project Safe Flight, we have found that the white-throated sparrow is the species with the most collisions in New York City:
And we have learned that the 12 species with the highest collisions make up 58 % of all the species involved in collisions.
) to request a summary of our data or a raw data set. Click here to see our report on the fall 2013 season.
Lights Out New York
Project Safe Flight’s affiliate program, Lights Out New York, promotes education and outreach by encouraging owners of tall buildings to turn off lights during the two migration seasons to help save night-migrating birds while reducing energy costs. A twofold win!
Turning off the lights and drawing the blinds can help save thousands of birds from over 100 different species every year!
Click here for details on our Lights Out New York program.
Tribute in Light
As part of our job as guardians of migrating birds, every year since September 2002, when the Tribute in Light memorializes the tragedy of 9/11/2001, volunteers and staff members monitor the all-night lights.
The evening of September 11, 2010 was significant because there were times when thousands of birds were drawn to the lights and "trapped." NYC Audubon worked with the Municipal Art Society of New York to minimize the impact on these birds by turning out the lights until the birds moved away.
Click here to read the press coverage of that year.
by F. Portmann
Resources and References
Bird-Friendly Building Design: Based on NYC Audubon's Bird-Safe Building Guidelines, this new 2015 update by the American Bird Conservancy in partnership with NYC Audubon is the most authoritative resource on this issue.
Pilot LEED Credit in Reducing Bird Collisions: NYC Audubon, Bird-Safe Glass Foundation and the American Bird Conservancy successfully worked with the US Green Building Council to create this pilot credit for sustainable buildings.
Windows and Vegetation: Primary Factors in Manhattan Bird Collisions by Yigal Gelb and Nicole Delacretaz
Bird Collisions with Windows: An Annotated Bibliography
by Chad L. Seewagen, Dept. of Ornithology, WSC
Chicago's Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP)
Bird Conservation Network
New York City Audubon's conservation programs are made possible by the leadership support of the Leon Levy Foundation.