- Dead birds found near Union Station in 2010. They hit buildings that were lit up at night. (Courtesy of Anne Lewis)
The Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building at 1 Columbus Circle NE is a shining beacon of modernism, designed with help from Edward Larrabee Barnes, that incorporates vast shining waterfalls of glass with a five-story atrium filled with trees. But one of the prettiest buildings in D.C. might also be the most deadliest for birds. Last year, 36 were found lying around Thurgood Marshall after they smacked into its windows and broke their necks.
That’s according to local conservation group City Wildlife, which conducted a survey of avian mortality in the neighborhood around Union Station last spring and fall. (Another survey starts in April; check below for details.) The group selected that area because of its preponderance of glass-fronted buildings that are illuminated at night, which attract migratory bird species with often-fatal results. Every morning at 5:30 a.m., volunteers fanned out to rescue injured birds, right stunned birds and bag and tag dead birds before depositing them in a storage freezer.
All in all, they collected 123 carcasses, the vast majority of which were migratory species like warblers, wood thrushes (the “official” bird of D.C.), ovenbirds, Indigo Buntings, a hummingbird, a Pied-billed Grebe, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and many more. This year, the organization plans to use its gruesome findings to push for a “Lights Out D.C” program. Modeled on similar Lights Out efforts in 15 other U.S. cities including New York and Baltimore, the program is aimed at persuading property managers in bird-killing buildings to reduce (or rearrange) their lighting schemes during peak migration times.
Migratory birds fly over D.C. twice each year via the Atlantic Flyway, heading north around April and May and south around September and October. They fly by night using the stars to navigate. And unlike our street-wise pigeons and crows, these long-range commuters don’t always know about glass or the danger it poses when you run head-first into it.
Up to a billion migratory birds perish each year after colliding with human-made structures like transmission towers, wind turbines and buildings, the latter of which cause an estimated 550 million deaths annually, according to a 2005 Department of Energy-funded study. The problem is that migratory birds are attracted to light, although exactly why is up for debate.
One theory is that a city’s glow signals a food source for the hungry travelers. Another is that the fixed light of cities at night remind birds of the North Star, which they use to help locate the constellations by which they navigate. For whatever reason, they are entranced by bright lights and perceive them as places they really want to go at night. There have been cases where birds fly around well-lit buildings until they drop from exhaustion.
Or they simply run into them. One big case in point is the Washington Monument. Toward the beginning of the century the obelisk was unilluminated and relatively few birds struck it. But in 1932 officials decided to start shining giant lights onto the monument, and the next year dead birds by the bushel were found at its base. One ornithologist described a "good bird night" at the site that he witnessed on Sept. 6, 1935 in the Wilson Bulletin (PDF):
Early in the evening the first birds struck the monument, and others came tumbling down its sides until the beacon lights were turned out at 11:45. At times birds were raining down so fast that the three of us who were watching that night could not keep track of them all. We could hear the birds chirping as they neared the monument, and then could see them, as they came into the path of the lights, three, four, or five hundred feet above us, fly directly toward the monument.
Many birds would immediately strike head-on with an audible blow, and would drop like plummets to the concrete at the base with quite a loud thud. Others, though they seemed to strike as hard, would back away from the monument after the impact and continue their journey. Still others would strike their heads on the stone again and again, each time at a lower level than the time before, and finally would come fluttering down the sides vainly trying to find a foothold on the smooth surface. Several of these latter were saved from probable death by landing in our outstretched hands.
Another example is the Thurgood Marshall building, by far the biggest destroyer of migratory birds among the structures studied by City Wildlife. Thirty-six deaths were recorded there in 2010, compared with 21 at the second-place contender, the “TechWorld” building at Mt. Vernon Square. (A full list follows this story.)
“Let’s say they land on the National Mall at 5 in morning. They rest a little bit, then they start looking for food because they’re going to lift off again at twilight,” says Anne Lewis, president of the conservation group. “That’s when they come over and find the Thurgood Marshall building. Remember, they’re very tired. They may just continue to be mesmerized by this potential food tree [inside the atrium], and keep flying into the glass until they drop.”
Or they may tire themselves by thumping against the windows until they can’t fly anymore, at which point predators like hawks, crows and rats move in for a feast of live bird. Lewis has saved a couple feathery friends from this grim fate by picking them off the ground or plucking them from the air.
In past years, some building managers who want their buildings to be highly noticeable at night have said that janitorial crews need lights to work by. But Lewis says that argument is outdated because of the development of motion-activated lights or computerized light-staging devices. Other collision-prevention tactics promoted by Lights Out programs include putting decals or frosted coverings over windows, moving greenery out of sight or simply drawing the curtains.
“What we don’t want to do is scare buildings into asking them to do something hugely expensive,” says Lewis. “This is all above-board and totally voluntary.”
City Wildlife hopes to replicate the success of Chicago’s Lights Out program, in which buildings dim their decorative lights for five months of the year to save an average of 10,000 avian lives, according to researchers at the Field Museum. That might not sound like a terribly large number in the grand scheme of things. But any bit of conservation helps, as migratory bird species are experiencing plummeting populations due to habitat loss, pesticides, climate change doing weird things with their migrations, automobile collisions and cats – the vicious little beasts kill 100 million birds a year, according to the DOE study.
If you would like to become a volunteer in 2011’s mortality/rescue operation, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. To get an idea of what the work involves you might want to read this volunteer's "Dead Bird Journal." The survey starts April 1.
And here are the buildings that City Wildlife monitored last year, in order of lethality. The links show pictures of the facades:
Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building (36 dead birds)
TechWorld, 800 K Street NW (21)
Senate Hart Office Building (11)
U.S. Court of Appeals, 430 E St. NW (10)
300 New Jersey Avenue NW (8)
1099 New York Avenue NW (7)
Washington Convention Center (7)
425 I Street NW (6)
20 Massachusetts Avenue NW (3)
Second and G Streets NE (3)
1100 First Street NE (2)
One death was recorded at the following buildings: 111 K Street NW, 18th Street at Pennsylvania Avenue NW, 1920 L Street NW, 500 New Jersey Avenue NW, 900 19th Street NW, 900 K Street NW, 900 Seventh Street NW, 901 K Street NW, 901 New York Avenue NW, First and N Streets NE (Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms HQ).