Light City Baltimore goes bird-friendly

For The Baltimore Sun
Light City Baltimore goes bird-friendly.

Downtown Baltimore is inundated this week with people taking in the inaugural Light City Baltimore, but there’s one aspect of the festival that will go largely unnoticed by the crowds: migrating birds, passing above the city on their way north.

The birds tend to land in illuminated places, and once they’ve descended into cities they can collide — fatally — with structures. As many as 1 billion birds — mostly songbirds — are estimated to die every year in the U.S. from building collisions, according to a 2014 study by researchers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Local activists had concerns when they learned about Light City Baltimore, its nighttime hours and brightly colored illumination. But the event producer, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), has taken steps — both independently and after consultation with advocates — that mean that the birds should be as safe passing by the event as humans.

“We didn't fully know what to expect but were pleasantly surprised that there were so many colored lights, especially this incredible use of blue and purple and green. That's safe for birds,” says activist Lynne Parks. “And the intensity of the lights — it's not overwhelming, especially in contrast with the street lighting that's normally there, which is so much brighter.”

Birds weren’t always on the organizers’ radar. Last year, Parks, the outreach coordinator of a bird advocacy group called Lights Out Baltimore, contacted BOPA with concerns about the festival’s impact on migratory birds.

Parks was connected with the Light City sustainability committee. Ryan Patterson, BOPA’s Public Arts Administrator and the committee’s point person, says the committee had been formed mainly to address common issues like recycling.

“We weren't going into it thinking about the issue of the impact on habitat,” he said.

Migratory birds are sensitive to certain kinds of nighttime lighting. They fly at night to evade predators and the heat of the day, navigating by the constellations and the moon, and the earth’s electromagnetic fields. Such birds tend to take breaks in lighted areas, where they spend the ensuing daytime hours hunting for food to replenish their energy stores. It’s in the course of these searches that they can collide with architectural glass, which reflects images of greenery that to birds look like shelter and food sources.

Lights Out Baltimore is one of a growing number of organizations in the U.S. that advocate for reduced lighting during peak bird migration periods, as well as bird-friendly building standards. Through her membership in the group, Parks has seen first-hand how deadly the combination of light pollution and glass buildings can be for birds.

With some of Lights Out Baltimore’s 30-odd other members, Parks has walked downtown Baltimore in the pre-dawn, hunting for injured or dead birds near buildings. Lights Out Baltimore has found more than 2,000 collision victims since 2008.

“We find the same species year after year in the same places, the same buildings, a few feet in front of the glass where they’re crumpled on the ground. Often they’ll leave a pattern on the glass,” says Parks.

Birds can also collide with illuminated structures like communications towers, and can get trapped within very bright, steady beams of light, like the September 11 Memorial in New York City. Strobe lights are much safer — and so are certain colors.

“In some cases [that were studied] what people found was that birds oriented normally under blue or green short-wavelength light, but they were disoriented under red and yellow light,” says Christine Sheppard, Bird Collisions Campaign Manager at the American Bird Conservancy.
However, she adds, “if you flash that light, the intervals between the flashes are enough for the birds to break away and fly off and get their orientation sense back.”

Happily, Lights Out Baltimore’s recommendations and Light City’s plans were not at odds. The festival has shut down promptly at 11 p.m. on weekdays and ceases at midnight this weekend — not too long after the start of nightly migration, around 10 p.m. And while there is some red, yellow, and white lighting, including the spotlights that ring the harbor, there are no constant, strong beams that would pose a problem for birds.

Parks’ one lingering worry is the illuminated glass signs that identify festival artworks, as they could be a collision point for birds. (It’s particularly ironic that such a sign was created for “When Worlds Collide,” the art exhibit about bird/building collisions that Parks, a visual artist, curated. It’s currently on display at Top of the World Observation Level Gallery, on the 27th floor of Baltimore’s World Trade Center.)

But if any trouble arises, Parks has a direct line to Patterson. “I’m constantly ready to adjust,” Patterson says, noting that the glass signs were moved away from foliage once Parks shared her concerns.

Lights Out Baltimore’s advocacy may play a factor in future Light City festivals, Patterson says. “If there are future proposals that we can foresee having that kind of [negative] impact [on birds], we would go to Lights Out right away to say, what’s your take on this, and how do we prevent an issue from happening?”

On Tuesday night, Parks went to the festival to monitor for birds in distress (fortunately, she found none). But first, she stood at the glass windows of Top of the World, the exhibit she curated hanging on the walls behind her. “This is pretty bird-friendly,” she said, looking down at the festival lights with relief.

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