Early mornings in the spring and fall, while the city sleeps, 17-year-old Claire Wayner marches through downtown Baltimore in search of dead birds.
She’s looking for live ones, too. But mainly dead ones.
“It’s tough to predict how many birds you’re gonna get, or if you’re gonna get any,” says Wayner, a senior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, at around 6 one recent morning. “Sometimes they just look like leaves.”
Wearing hiking sandals, a butterfly net poking out from her backpack, Wayner looks more suited for exploring a rain forest than for the concrete jungle.
She spots a lump on the ground by the Transamerica Building and identifies it immediately: a dead thrasher. She picks it up with her bare hands.
“That’s my first thrasher,” she says. “I didn’t realize they migrated that much.”
Ever since dinosaurs grew feathers and became birds, they’ve migrated with the seasons in search of food. Cities emerged, and with them lights and buildings with reflective glass. Scientists say the birds can be drawn to urban environments by city lights, which they mistake for the moon and stars.
Once drawn into a city, they are confused by urban architecture. They see what looks like a tree. Really, it’s the reflection of a tree.
Up to a billion birds die each year crashing into windows in the United States, according to the American Ornithological Society. The problem is especially acute during migration seasons.
The nighttime glow of Charm City “kind of throws them off,” Lindsay Jacks says. She's an aviculturist at the National Aquarium and the director of Lights Out Baltimore, part of a national movement aimed at protecting the birds.
Since 2008, the Baltimore chapter has coordinated walks to collect the carcasses of birds that have crashed into windows. Volunteers from the group head out early in the morning in the hope of finding the victims before building custodians dispose of them.
Their mission is to document the types and numbers of birds falling prey to Baltimore’s architecture, and to use that data to learn more about migratory patterns — and to advocate for change in the way owners and managers light their buildings.
Toronto is generally credited with initiating the first major effort to document and curb bird deaths caused by flying into buildings. Canada’s largest city launched the Fatal Light Awareness Program — or FLAP — in the early 1990s. Today there are more than 20 Lights Out chapters, most of them in the U.S.
Lights Out Baltimore members lobby building owners to make their exteriors more bird-friendly. They have received grants from the federal government and other groups to help pay for the installations.
“Most of the buildings downtown know about us,” Jacks says.
The group asks property owners to turn out unnecessary lights after hours and direct nighttime cleaning crews to light only the floors they’re working on.
The focus is on “nonessential” lights, Wayner says: “That means lights they don’t use for security purposes.”
He has met with Jacks and Wayner. Instead of demanding that owners shut off lights completely — an impractical approach Fowler says might make a building look lifeless — they suggest ideas such as changing the color of exterior lights to blue or green, as the aquarium has done, because those colors don’t attract birds.
Another tactic is to apply special film outside windows, with a pattern that birds can recognize and avoid.
“If you put a visual barrier, the majority of birds will see that,” Jacks says.
After hearing their pitch, Fowler connected them with a group that represents city building owners and managers.
“I advocated at least for the buildings to consider ways to improve lighting,” Fowler says.
The bird safety movement has gained momentum in recent years.
The National Audubon Society reported in 2013 that Minneapolis advocates had recruited some 60 buildings to adopt bird-friendly practices, and this year the University of Minnesota is putting the finishing touches on its new $79 million Bell Museum, which is fitted with “fritted” glass — a dotted pattern designed for both bird safety and energy efficiency.
The Audubon Society of Portland, Ore., recruited 2,500 residents and 13 buildings last year to turn off “unnecessary” lights, and last month, the Apple store in downtown Chicago announced it would dim lights at night to help curb bird collisions.
Lights Out Baltimore has also enjoyed success. Members worked with the Light City Baltimore festival last year to suggest ways to keep the colorful event from luring birds to their doom, and the Patuxent Wildlife Center in Laurel recently outfitted its windows with a blue film designed by artist Lynne Parks, a Lights Out volunteer.
Wayner has worked with the organization since she was 13, catching rides downtown with neighbors for her morning walks. She is fascinated by avian life — its diversity and ubiquity — and interested in conservation.
“I really wanted to get close to birds,” Wayner says.
Unlike species that can be found only in the jungle or the savanna, she says, “birds are everywhere. Along the street, in a parking lot, in a forest, on the beach, in a local park.”
Lights Out volunteers never go alone on their morning walks, but Wayner says she has “never felt like I’m in any danger. It’s so quiet.”
She was joined on a recent Sunday by Matt Emrich, 50, and Angie Gipson, 39, of Bolton Hill. Together they trek nearly 5 miles around the city. A faint blue light rises on the buildings. The only other humans the volunteers encounter are security guards, custodians, and the city’s homeless.
Before reconnoitering around the Baltimore Convention Center, they check with a security guard.
“I think it’s fantastic,” the guard says. “Birds are important too.”
They find a dead bird covered with ants. Wayner tries to blow them off before putting the bird in a plastic bag, then in her satchel.
“It’s pretty gross,” she says.
Volunteers carry permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that allow them to pick up the birds. The birds they collect die from impact, not disease. Still, the volunteers wash their hands frequently.
Wayner sees the duty as an almost sacred accounting of life. Touching the lifeless feathered body establishes what she calls a “birder spiritual connection.”
Emrich says the work gives him a feeling of accomplishment. He and Gipson have day jobs with the Department of Homeland Security.
“Our jobs have nothing to do with the environment,” Emrich says. “So this is a way for us to contribute.”
Adds Gipson: “It is sort of a macabre hobby.”
Volunteers take dead birds home and keep them in their freezers to prevent decay.
“There’s three [dead birds] on one shelf, steaks on another,” Emrich says.
Each season, the avian dead are taken to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
Brian K. Schmidt, a specialist in the museum’s birds division, processes specimens collected by the Baltimore and Washington chapters of Lights Out. Some are sent to natural history museums for studies of disease or diet. Others, perhaps compromised by rot or because rats or ants got to them before Lights Out could, are tossed into the garbage. Yet even in those cases, Schmidt is grateful for the volunteers’ work.
“We always want people to send us dead birds,” he says.
Not all the birds wind up in a museum or trash can. Lights Out Baltimore estimates that its volunteers have rescued more than 1,000 injured birds since 2008.
About a third of birds picked up are still alive, though often stunned from the impact of collision. Even if they appear OK, they can have brain swelling or temporary blindness.
Volunteers carry the survivors — rustling inside brown paper bags — to the Phoenix Wildlife Center, a northern Baltimore County nonprofit that works with injured and abandoned animals. The center gives the birds medicine to ease swelling, and a meal of insects or berries. After that, they’re taken south of Baltimore and released.
Some finds are rare. Take the yellow rail, for instance. The National Audubon Society calls the species, dappled black and yellow and with white flecks that give the appearance of marbled feathers, one of “the most secretive birds in North America, almost never seen under normal conditions.”
A yellow rail was last documented in Baltimore in the late 1800s, Jacks says.
Until last year, that is. Lights Out volunteers found one, alive but stunned after flying into a window. They brought it to the Phoenix center, where director Kathy Woods cared for it and released it.
“I had no idea what it was,” Woods says.
“We get these migratory shorebirds that I never get to see,” she says, “except when they’re migrating through downtown Baltimore — and they hit a window.”
As the sun rises over Camden Yards, Wayner, Emrich and Gipson are scanning mulch and planters when they spot a custodian sweeping.
Has he seen any birds? Just one, he says. It was still alive, so he left it alone.
The trio head in the bird’s direction, thinking it might be stunned.
Before they reach it, it flies off, flapping its wings near the bright sign that reads “Birdland.”