Save a bird, turn off your skyscraper lights

Categories: Environment

Among the many detractors of modern architecture, the party with the most legitimate beef may be the migrating songbird. Researchers have noted that lit skyscrapers disorient birds at night in roughly the same manner that bus stations waylay runaways: They both have a bad habit of ending up on the sidewalk in morning.

This year, a working group led by Audubon Minnesota kicked off a project to dim office lights at night during the migratory season. At worst, the experiment would be harmless. The voluntary effort promised real estate managers a way to save energy and money—only Joe Soucheray found cause to complain—and tall buildings like the IDS Center, U.S. Bankcorp Center, and Riverplace joined the effort in mid-March.

Joanna Eckles, a St. Paul Audubon member, helped launch the experiment, and has trained a team of a dozen volunteers to collect data each morning. "Data," in this case, means the tiny carcasses of crashed birds and the occasional survivor.

"We always walk the same route," Eckles says over the phone from her house in Stillwater. "We focus on the morning, from five to eight. In Minneapolis, especially, we find the people who clean the streets are out really early. Until you befriend them, you have to get there before they do."

Eckles notes that there are other scavengers to beat, too—crows, raccoons, and the like. And then there are birds that turn up disarticulated—presumably victim to the city's population of peregrine falcons, who have not signed up for any program to aid their avian colleagues.

Eckles walked the route herself last Sunday, and collected five birds—a normal haul. "The most common warbler we're finding is the ovenbird," she says. "We find sparrows. Not house sparrows,"—at this point, Eckles takes a moment to disparage the invasive species—"but white-throated sparrows."

The mortality list has included some surprises. One volunteer picked up a woodcock—a ground bird that generally has no business to conduct in downtown Minneapolis. Dead bats can be found lying in curled-up black balls. That's a particular mystery, as these creatures navigate the skies through echolocation. Eckles herself picked up a reclusive water bird called a sora rail: "That bird should be there just as much as I should be on the moon," she says.

Having failed to reach their destination—be that Lake Minnetonka or a beach in Mexico—do the birds end up in a charnel house or a pauper's grave?

"That's a good question," Eckles says. "All the carcasses are brought to the University. All the ones that are intact will go into the collection."

At this, Eckles puts down the phone for a second. There's someone at the door: a neighborhood child who has brought her a robin's egg that he found in the grass. Eckles promises to recommend a few places where the nest may be hiding, though she doesn't sound hopeful. There isn't a spreadsheet in the world big enough to register the lost robin's egg.


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