March 25, 2010

As a culture, we’re wistful about our tallest buildings.

Cities love to show off grand buildings as testaments to human endeavor. Illuminated skyscrapers are a region’s trophies, towering evidence of its greatness. For many, the drama of an illuminated and looming edifice rivals the magic of the North Star, guiding travelers over long distances and seducing those of us who cherish the illusion of fraternizing with God.

In Cleveland, we have the landmark Terminal Tower, which was the second-tallest building in the world when it opened in 1930. I can still get goose bumps when I look out the window and spot it during a nighttime flight home. It’s such a familiar welcome.

Unless you’re a bird.

Migratory birds prefer to fly high above obstacles, both natural and human-made. They fly at night to avoid predators. But low clouds or fog can force them to fly closer to the ground. That’s when our buildings pose unintended threats.

Twice a year, an estimated 5 billion birds migrate through the nighttime sky of North America.

And twice a year, millions of these migratory birds die for one reason: tall-building lights that flood the skies.

“Birds pollinate plants, scatter seeds and eat an inestimable number of insects. They also produce some of the most beautiful music we ever will hear waft through our bedroom windows.

Terrible things happen when migratory birds fly into the glaring lights of skyscrapers. They become confused, blinded. When they are unable to see the navigating constellation of stars above them or a way out around them, they flutter frantically in the bright beams, dipping and swirling until they are exhausted. Then they smash into windows and buildings or simply drop to the ground.

Several years ago, bird lovers started tracking the number of dead birds found around tall buildings—including here in Cleveland. Harvey Webster, who is director of the Wildlife Resource Center at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said most people have no idea that tens of thousands of birds die in Cleveland each year because of night lighting. In 2005, for example, nearly 700 dead birds were found near the Terminal Tower alone.

The solution here and across the country is simple: Turn off exterior and interior lights after 11 p.m. during spring and fall migration seasons.

I can hear contrarian sighs. After all this anguish over health care for humans, now we should care about the birds?

Yes, and here’s why:

Birds take care of us and our planet. They pollinate plants, scatter seeds and eat an inestimable number of insects. The Ornithological Council offers this example: A single pair of adult warblers plucks caterpillars from countless leaves in the short time—usually two or three weeks—it takes their little ones to hatch and launch their own migratory adventures. Every plant saved is another fresh-air filter helping us breathe.

They also produce some of the most beautiful music we ever will hear waft through our bedroom windows. Already we are awaking to the serenades of returning songbirds that have traveled thousands of miles to get here. Think how many we lost along the way. Now consider how many we easily could save.

The National Audubon Society offers a how-to guide for cities interested in the Smart Lights/Safe Flights initiative. Some cities already are starting to do it right, including Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Boston, Indianapolis and New York, where even the Empire State Building goes dark during the spring and fall bird migrations.

We have good news here in Cleveland, too, where the Terminal Tower has just become a beacon in the cause. On Tuesday, it went dark at 11 p.m. and stayed that way until dawn.

“We’ll do it until the migration is over,” General Manager Stephen Bir said. “We’ve been talking about this with Harvey for a couple of years now. We were dark for five years of construction, and we’ve just replaced our old lights with LED lighting. We wait until the local newscasts are over. Then we shut off the lights.”

Bir shrugged off praise for the decision.

“It’s really no big deal,” he said. “It’s an easy thing to do.”

Hear that?

It’s the sweet sound of reason taking flight.


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