An Eastern Meadowlark in a field in autumn. This is a migratory bird, which we can help save by using fewer lights at nights and that will also save energy and money
Photo Credit:
Adobe Stock
Save the birds

Turn Off Your Lights to Save the Birds and a Little Money!

Kelsey Bourgeois
October 6, 2023

Turn Off Your Lights to Save the Birds and a Little Money!

I love it when the right thing to do is the same as the cheap thing. Such is the case right now in the U.S. for migratory bird season! You can take a few small actions that could save dozens of birds and save you money on your electricity bill.

Right now, somewhere between 4 and 5 billion birds are heading south for the winter season and will be passing through the United States. The bad news? Up to 1 billion birds die annually (all over the world) from collisions with the built environment.

When birds migrate during the day, they can more easily spot buildings and see the sun reflect off windows. This allows them to easily navigate a city landscape. But at night, it’s a different story. They get confused by lights on in buildings and especially by fully transparent windows with indoor lights. Millions of birds then run into windows, injuring themselves and often dying. It’s common, for example, in Chicago, where I live, to see the sidewalks littered with dead birds each morning downtown at this time of year.

It’s horrible, particularly given some of the species dying are endangered species. I am happy to report there is a huge group of dedicated professionals and volunteers that spent weeks during spring and fall migration finding injured birds and rehabilitating them, as well as studying those who perish to understand more about what’s going on.

Modern birds have been on this earth for more than 60 million years; electricity has been around for a tiny fraction of that. Understandably, the birds are confused, and we should do more to allow them to thrive!

What can I do?

The great news is that what’s right for the birds is also right for the broader environment and your wallet! Here’s what to do:

Learn about your local area

Find out which of the four Aviation Superhighways you live in so you know which times of year your actions are particularly important. You might even live in a particularly high migration area like I do in Chicago. This means your individual actions are going to go a really long way towards protecting the birds, which are an important part of our ecosystem.

Change your night lighting choices

The most energy-efficient way to do this is to switch off as many lights at night as you can reasonably switch off. If you’re reading, try a cozy candle or a dim lamp versus bright overhead lighting. The side benefit? You’ll save yourself money and relieve the grid: that’s a win-win.

If you must use a lot of light at night, you have a few options: get blackout curtains or add stickers to your windows. I keep blackout curtains in my bedrooms anyway and use beautiful rainbow decals on most other windows. You can also put dots on your window, known as anti-collision stickers, that help birds understand they can’t fly through the window. They don’t have to cover the entire window, but anything that gives a clear window some texture or variation in light will help birds understand that that is an object they will fly into, not a space they can fly through. Note that any clear space more than 2x2 inches can be a threat to birds. Bonus: the rainbow decals make for beautiful daytime light.

A woman puts anti-collision stickers on her windows

For outdoor lights, birds are more attracted to white, red, and yellow lights. This means you should make any outdoor lighting green or blue to avoid attracting birds to your building. The direction of your lighting also matters. Light directed upward attracts more birds than light pointed downward, like a reading lamp, for example.

Birds die year-round by running into windows with lights on indoors. Still, it matters the most in the spring migratory season (usually April and May, depending on where you live) and the fall migratory season (usually September and October, depending on where you live) when birds who aren’t from the area are just passing through. This is especially important if you live in any high-rise building; even 2 or 3 stories up makes a difference. That said, I live on the ground floor, and I still do this. You should, too!

Report injured or dead birds

Do a quick Google in your area and see what research and rescue organizations exist. Here is the one in Chicago. Often, birds can be rehabilitated. And if not, studying the ones that have died provides insight for scientists to understand what is happening and how we can help!

Encourage commercial buildings to be responsible

How many commercial buildings actually need to keep their lights on all night? Almost none. If no one is there, all that is happening is for show. It’s a waste of energy and, by extension, a bad use of carbon emissions (depending on what type of energy the local grid is operating on primarily) when we desperately need to decrease that number. It’s also a waste of money and dangerous for the birds.

Some buildings have taken the warnings from bird lovers and scientists seriously and taken big steps in the right direction here. McCormick Place here in Chicago has done a beautiful job of this by participating in a lights-out program. Not only do they turn their lights off whenever possible, but they have also dedicated some natural habitat for birds on their property along the lakefront.

Save the birds, save money!

I hope this has helped you understand your part in protecting the birds and saving money and energy in the process!

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