Lights Out For The Birds

Twice a year, billions of birds migrate throughout the United States between their wintering and breeding grounds. These birds typically migrate south in the fall and will migrate north again in the spring. That means right now in New York State, birds are passing through as they travel down south to warmer climates. All types of birds will be seen migrating during the seasons, including warblers, shorebirds, raptors, and more.

Birds will usually spend their days saving their energy, resting, and finding food sources and during the night will use most of their energy flying. Migratory birds are typically nocturnal travelers, which means they gain the most mileage during the night hours. While we are asleep after an event filled day, there can be an estimated 150 million to upwards of 300 million birds travelling overhead in one given night. Even though the day is over for us and is our time to relax and unwind, the night hours are highly active for migrating birds!

The official New York State bird, the Eastern Bluebird, migrates south in the fall to spend its winters in the southeaster U.S. or Mexico. (Photo credit – Wikipedia Commons)
Dark-eyed junco (female) migrate south into New York from Canada and sometimes hang around all winter. (Photo credit – Wikipedia Commons)

Nighttime migration poses different threats to these birds, particularly in big cities. Large buildings are typically lit up with hundreds of bright lights throughout all hours of the night. This light pollution can significantly change birds’ behaviors, including migration patterns, foraging for food, and communication with other birds in the area. Light pollution can distract the birds as they might start to think it is daytime, because they cannot process light sources like we can. All of these behaviors are a waste of energy for birds, making their long journey much more dangerous.

According to the National Park Service, nighttime light pollution in the U.S. has gotten much worse in decades after World War II, so much that now eight in ten Americans can no longer see the Milky Way. And this is an increasing issue for migrating birds.

This National Park Service map shows the growth of light pollution in the U.S. since the 1950s

Birds and State Parks

New York State Parks are a great place to visit to catch a view of migrating birds. The forests, meadows, wetlands, and other natural areas in State Parks provide some of the most crucial habitats for these birds along their journey, and have helped them survive over the years by offering shelter and food. In some parks there are specific areas designated as Bird Conservation Areas (BCAs). Of the 62 BCAs throughout the state, 27 are within State Parks.

An area can be designated as a BCA if it is judged as important habitat for one or more species based on certain criteria. There are many BCA locations throughout the state, such as Saratoga Spa State Park that is home to more than 100 different bird species. You can find the location of Saratoga Spa State Park and other BCAs on the map provided below and the State Parks website. You can also check the State Parks events list for birding events near you!

A map of the Bird Conservation Area in Saratoga Spa State Park.

In addition to BCAs, there are also areas recognized nationwide by the National Audubon Society to help protect birds and their habitats; Important Bird Areas (IBAs). One example in New York State is Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Westchester county, and is home to 180 different bird species! Check out the National Audubon Website to see Rockefeller State Park Preserve and all the other IBAs in New York State.

What Is The “Lights Out” Movement?

The “Lights Out” movement is a nationwide event that was created in in Chicago in 1999 by the National Audubon Society to help reduce the number of bird fatalities. Since then, the effort has spread to cities including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

Bird fatalities are more directly caused by the amount of energy birds are wasting during the night because of the heavy light pollution across the United States. This energy is being wasted on flying around, using more vocalization and the exhaustion is leaving them more vulnerable to other threats around them.

If you’re interested in watching migrations, a tool that can be used is the BirdCast migration tool. This website has many resources for nationwide and local monitoring. The nationwide mapping tools include a live forecast of the density of the birds migrating as well as a 3-day prediction forecast of what it could look like. In addition to the nationwide prediction forecast, you can also check out a live animated video of the current migration patterns each day!

Use the slider bar to see how the BirdCast migration changes between Oct. 6 and October 14.

Another neat tool that this website includes is a live local alerting map that is specific for a county, city, or town. The local maps tell you how many birds to expect flying over your area that night and what the next couple nights look like as well. This tool provides important information so you can participate in helping the birds during their migration.

There are two large windows for bird migrations;: one in the fall and one in the spring. Bird migration can take place from August through November with peak migration in October in the fall and from March through June with peak migration in May in the spring. Check out the links provided above to get more information on BirdCast and when peak migration is happening in your area!

How Can You Help?

Some suggestions to help get you started with the Lights Out Movement for nighttime hours:

  • Turn off exterior decorative lighting
  • Turn off interior lighting, or use curtains and blinds
  • Install automatic motion sensors and controls wherever possible
  • Click on the link to check out the full list of suggestions: Lights Out Movement. One of the local efforts is based in New York City.

After visiting State Parks and seeing the many different species of birds that are in New York State, it is important for all of us to do our part to help keep them safe. The National Audubon Society provides suggestions on how to decrease light pollution on a local level, which will help birds during their migration. It is estimated that 253 million annual bird deaths from collisions are from residential areas compared to 340 million from tall buildings and skyscrapers. Your part at home is just as important as businesses!

Participating in the Lights Out movement helps more birds safely reach their migration grounds, giving you and your family more opportunities to see them in New York State Parks! To make an official pledge with the movement, sign up here.


Cover Shot – A map of Bird Conservation Areas in New York State Parks.

Post by Allyson Paradis, Wildlife Unit Assistant, NYS Parks

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One thought on “Lights Out For The Birds”

  1. Just saw this post, what a great article, nicely done. I am excited to see a post highlighting the BCA program!

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