Would You Turn Off Your Lights for Migrating Birds?

With bird migration, one small act can make a world of difference to those on a thousand-plus-mile journey.

On any night in the fall and spring, there might be thousands, if not millions, of birds flying unseen overhead. But unfortunately, each year between 350 million to one billion of them die due to man-made lights. The good news is that we are learning how to help, with just the flip of a switch.

How Do Lights Affect Migrating Birds?

Bright lights and big cities attract birds, similar to how porch lights attract moths. Except the lights disorient them in flight.  Some crash into windows and die; more than 270 species of North American birds are known to collide with buildings due to light pollution. Others are thrown off their migration paths and never make it to their destinations. Nocturnal search lights can cause birds to circle for hours, calling out in confusion.

“Not only do artificial lights disrupt and confuse nocturnal migrants, such as many types of songbirds and waterfowl, they also cause birds to alter their feeding and reproductive behaviors,” says independent wildlife biologist Amy Sugeno, who specializes in songbirds and waterfowl.

How Can Homeowners Help Nocturnal Migrating Birds?

An illuminated house at nightFrederick Bass/Getty Images

  • Turn off exterior house lights and downshield exterior lighting to eliminate lights that can be seen from above.
  • Turn off spotlights and floodlights.
  • Turn off or minimize interior, lobby and atrium lights.
  • Close curtains in the morning before leaving for work.
  • Install window coverings on rooms where nighttime light is needed.
  • Install automatic controls and sensors to turn off lights not in use.
  • Use newer technology to avoid over-lighting areas.
  • Join the Audubon Lights Out Pledge.
  • Encourage your city and work place to sign up for Audubon’s Lights Out Program.

Keeping lights low or off also helps the wildlife and insects in your yard and saves money on your power bill.

“Artificial lights don’t just affect birds,” says Sugeno. “They have been shown to negatively affect many other animal species, including nesting sea turtles, moths, bats, frogs and even humans.”

Why Do Birds Migrate at Night?

Cooler temperatures prevent them from overheating. Darkness keeps them safe from hawks, falcons and other daytime predators. Night air is less turbulent so it takes less effort to navigate.

What Birds Migrate at Night?

Most land birds migrate at night, among them sparrows, thrushes, orioles, cuckoos, flycatchers, warblers and vireos. Daytime fliers include swifts, swallows, pelicans, most hummingbirds and birds of prey.

Cities Turning Off Lights for Migrating Birds

Cities and towns like Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia are helping migrating birds to varying degrees. Landmarks like the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis dim their lights as well.

Raleigh, North Carolina, is one of the most recent to announce it will turn off all non-essential lighting in city facilities between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. from Sept. 10 to Nov. 30. According to a statement from the city: “Migratory bird populations are in serious decline, and such collisions are significant contributors to these losses. Turning off lights is a simple way to make a positive impact!”

Are Birds in Decline?

Yes. There are nearly three billion fewer birds in North America now than in 1970. That’s more than one in four of all birds. More than 90 percent of those losses come from just 12 families, among them warblers, finches, sparrows and blackbirds. Building collisions from light pollution are one of the largest causes of bird mortality, second only to cats.

Can I See Birds Migrating at Night?

Yes, but it takes work. First, check BirdCast’s migrating bird maps and alerts. You can watch birds on radar, or use a spotting scope or binoculars to see them flying across the lighted face of the moon. Listen for their short flight noises as well. A microphone makes it easier to catch the more subtle calls.

Will Turning Off My Few Lights Really Make a Difference?

Yes. Each household adds to the strength of collective community efforts.

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.