New city building rules should help save the birds

Chicago has been a leader in the Lights Out program that encourages building owners to turn off unnecessary lighting during times of migration. Now it’s time to take the next step.

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The Merchandise Mart and other buildings in Chicago’s downtown are lit on April 25 in honor of first responders and essential workers who are still working amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

When at least 19 downtown office buildings began lighting up at night to honor doctors, nurses, grocery clerks and other essential workers during the pandemic, we heard from folks who worried that this might present a serious problem for migrating birds.

Chicago, at the tip of Lake Michigan, sits beneath a major intercontinental migration route, and building lights can disorient birds and lead to their deaths when they fly into hard glass.

Fortunately, organizers of the tribute kept the well-being of birds in mind, and the lights are switched off late in the evening.

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But there is more, long after the light tributes have ended, that Chicago could be doing to be more bird-friendly. A resolution passed by the City Council last month requires the Department of Planning and Development to find ways to put a greater weight on bird protection in its sustainability handbook, a checklist of environmental standards that building developers need to meet.

We look forward to seeing where that goes.

Rewriting the standards can be a deceptively complex job. For example, green plantings on buildings can retain water, reduce the urban heat effect and improve air quality. But the foliage will attract birds, and if the building is not designed with birds in mind it can be a cause of many bird deaths. Similarly, glass that is designed to meet other sustainability goals might be bad for birds if it lacks visual cues to keep birds from running into it.

Birds that migrate through Chicago

Examples of birds that migrate through the Chicago area

Eastern Phoebe, White-throated sparrow, White-crowned sparrow, Fox sparrow, Hermit thrush, Brown thrasher, Gray catbird, Golden-crowned kinglet, Ruby-crowned kinglet, Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Eastern wood-pewee, Great crested flycatcher, Scarlet tanager, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore oriole, Rose-breasted grosbeak, Yellow-rumped warbler, Palm warbler, Black-throated green warbler, American redstart, Blackburnian warbler, Chestnut-sided warbler, Yellow warbler, Magnolia warbler.

SOURCE: Chicago Botanic Garden

During migration seasons, about 300 species of birds migrate through Illinois and especially along Lake Michigan’s shorelines, including songbirds, hawks, falcons, gulls, owls, terns shorebirds and waterfowl.

The trip is draining, and one bird expert tells us that late in the evening, migratory birds navigating by the night sky are like punchy prizefighters late in a match — too tired to think clearly. They become disoriented by bright artificial lights and reflected “skyglow” light, and they slam into buildings or fly in circles until they run out of energy. In the morning, they are found dead on the sidewalks downtown.

Chicago has been a leader in the “Lights Out” program that encourages building owners to turn off unnecessary lighting during times of migration. Environmentalists and the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago have worked closely together to make the program a success.

Now it’s time to take the next step, making building designs even safer for birds. Last year, scientists found that over the past half-century, North America lost about 3 billion birds, or more than a quarter of its entire bird population. We need to do all we can to protect the birds we have left.

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