Protecting migratory birds in Missouri can be as easy as flipping a switch

March 27, 2023 5:45 am

A favorite of backyard birders, ruby-throated hummingbirds often fall victim to window and building collision. They have been found in significant number during surveys conducted by BirdSafeKC (Eric Wilhoit, courtesy of MRB).

When I moved from open country to the lush Missouri landscape, I quickly became aware of the many species of birds living in the tangle of green behind my home. 

Pulled into the ebb and flow of their presence and their migrations, I became fascinated by the instinct that drives them, the adaptation processes of their seemingly fragile bodies, and how they survive the thousands of miles they must endure. I also came to understand that one of the most dire obstacles they face in survival is one that we can easily protect them from.

“Many birds can’t get to where they are going if they can’t navigate by the stars,” said Dana Ripper, co-director of the Missouri River Bird Observatory (MRBO)

And with the ever-increasing sprawl of artificial lighting, birds are at a disadvantage. 

Ripper said that migrating birds are often drawn out of migration and down into urban areas by following artificial light. Once this happens, they become disoriented and thus vulnerable to dangers, including window collision, the second leading cause of bird mortality behind domestic cats (and not including general habitat loss). 

And while it’s true that these collisions occur year round, the numbers jump during migration.

“Resident birds are familiar with their home ranges,” Ripper said. “They become wise to the danger. But migrating birds, even those with a fidelity to specific stop-over areas, will get disoriented, which often leads to collision.” 

And with the increased numbers of species that travel through a given area during migration, the scope of the problem is huge.

According to statistics provided by MRBO, roughly 600 million birds are killed each year through collisions. Fifty-six percent of those kills occur against low-rise buildings, 44% occur against residential windows and 1% occur against high rises — though their bird-per-building ratio is highest. 

But the knowledge of this phenomenon is not new. As early as the 1800s, humans noted the negative effects of artificial light on migrating birds. 

According to “A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds” by Scott Weidensaul, lighthouse keepers reported large numbers of kills when migrating songbirds battered themselves against the glass.

A few of the birds found during surveys conducted by BirdSafeKC. From 2019 to 2022, volunteers monitored the grounds of participating buildings during spring and fall migrations. Birds ranking highest in mortality are the common yellowthroat, the white-throated sparrow, and the Nashville Warbler (Dana Ripper courtesy MRBO).

In recent years, with the advent of radar technology, scientists have continued to witness specific behavioral changes. For example, in 2016 scientists noticed a pattern in autumn migrants on the east coast not unlike what Weidensaul observed. Forest-nesting songbirds were found in increased numbers in urban parks. Eventually it became clear that city lights were reshaping migration, especially in autumn when young birds on their first migration were being drawn by artificial urban light, which is “visible to a flying bird from as far away as 190 miles.”

 Here in the semi-rural heartland, central to the Mississippi Flyway, we are not immune. 

Missouri’s largest cities rank in the top 10 most deadly cities for bird collision, Kansas City ranking seventh during spring migration and St. Louis ranking fifth. In the fall the two rank at eighth and sixth respectively. Chicago holds the unfortunate top spot during both seasons.

 But cities are making changes. According to Sherae Honeycutt, press secretary for 

Kansas City government, the city has committed to using dark-skies compliant luminaries and is utilizing warmer color temperatures in those luminaries. 

In recent years, the St. Louis Arch has turned out its lights during peak migration. Thanks to radar tracking, cities across the country can be alerted to large flocks of migrants entering a region, allowing participating entities to turn off their lights as millions of birds pass silently overhead.

 As for the individual, this is one instance where we can truly and easily make a difference. Lights Out Heartland offers a list for homeowners interested in making their residences bird-safe. Many of the suggestions are simple: turning out exterior lighting during migration or closing blinds so reflectivity is mitigated should disoriented birds arrive in your area.

 “I think people care,” Ripper said. “They like birds and the pretty (star-filled) dark skies. You can see it throughout history represented in our art and culture.”

Yet we have taken our dark skies and the birds we love for granted, exchanging them instead for bright, shiny lights. 

Depending on the species, birds can begin migration as early as January, but the majority will travel through Missouri between April and June, having flown thousands of miles under ever-more strenuous conditions to reach nesting sites and plentiful food sources. Since we have the ability to make a difference, we must. 

In this rare instance, it really is as easy as flipping a switch.

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Shawna Bethell
Shawna Bethell

Shawna Bethell is a freelance essayist/journalist covering the people and places of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. Before returning home, she wrote for several publications in the southwestern United States.