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'Lights Out' initiative aims to reduce light pollution, streamline bird migration

The bright lights from big cities cause millions of birds to die each year. But, there's a growing initiative that hopes to curb that problem.

PENNSYLVANIA, USA — Every fall, millions of birds embark on a journey south to warmer temperatures, and return in the spring.

Many of them don't make it. 

The bright lights from big cities can be disorienting, causing them to crash or lose their way. But, there's a growing initiative that hopes to curb the problem. 

"If you have the ability to turn off external lights overnight into the early morning, you are benefiting birds," Jonathan Rice, the urban bird conservation coordinator for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and BirdSafe Pittsburgh said. 

It's called the Lights Out Initiative, a voluntary program designed to mitigate bird deaths in cities at night. It encourages building owners and tenants to turn off as many unnecessary lights as possible.

Rice says birds naturally use the stars to help guide them at night.   

"You can imagine if you are using all of these points to navigate and all of a sudden the ground is this very bright point of light, it screws up their navigation and confuses them," he said. 

These bright lights can disorient birds and draw them towards it, often causing window collisions. This kills millions of birds per year, even in suburban areas.

"Just about every person that you ask...that has a house, they will tell you, 'Oh, we have that one kitchen window that birds tend to hit in the spring or in the fall,'" he said. "If you get 2 or 3 strikes on your house across the year that may not seem a lot. But when you think about how many hundreds of millions of homes there are across the continental United States, that adds up very quickly.”

Jason Weckstein, associate professor and associate curator of ornithology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, said that research will continue to develop on light and bird migrations by monitoring which areas are a problem.

"We won't necessarily know 100% yet that our Lights Out program had an instant affect like this, but we know from other studies that this is absolutely the right things to do and that it will have a positive effect," he said. "A healthy bird population is not only vital to ensure the ecosystem is working efficiently but also a look at the future for humans. If we don't act on climate change concerns soon." 

Only two cities in Pennsylvania currently have Lights Out initiatives in place: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but you can still do your part to help here in South Central Pennsylvania, according to Rice. He suggests only using lights when necessary, and being more mindful of your light usage throughout the day. 

"You don't have to live in the dark, but you can help spread the word about lowering light usage from midnight to 7 a.m. from Sept. 1 through November 15," he said. "The Lights Out program is efficient everywhere because birds are everywhere." 

To learn more about Lights Out Philadelphia, click here. To learn more about the program in Pittsburgh, click here

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