Lights Out, Austin!

By Christy Esmahan, TAS Board Member

It’s fall! Or, well, it’s September, I should say, even if “fall” remains an elusive concept here in Central Texas. Nonetheless, we birders know that right about now, a very important and dangerous phase is occurring in the lives of millions of birds: fall migration. Migration is one of the most dangerous things birds do. Can you imagine walking out your door and then, using nothing but your own senses, intuition and unshod feet, taking off running from here to the tip of Argentina?

And then imagine if you weighed just mere ounces and mostly travelled at night, using the stars to navigate. You carry no food and, if you just hatched this summer, you’ve never even been to where you are going.

Migration is such a perilous enterprise that only 50% of birds live to see their first birthday.

It’s bad enough that foul weather can blow birds off course (either by directly pushing them or as a product of them flying around large storms) by hundreds of miles. It’s also bad that at some important stop-overs for refueling, birds don’t find the food they had hoped for because humans have degraded the habitat.

But another huge stressor to migrating birds is caused by light pollution. The light we emit from our homes and neighborhoods is bright enough to obscure the stars by which birds navigate. It also disorients birds and brings them down prematurely into urban areas where they are much more likely to fly into windows as they search for food the next morning. Many window strikes lead to death.

And, as it turns out, Austin lies in the middle of the important and well-known Central Flyway.

So, here is where YOU can make an important difference. Between now and October 29th be very vigilant about not letting any light from your home escape, especially between the hours of 11pm and 6 am, when millions of tiny songbirds are making their perilous journey.

That means close your curtains and shades at night. Don’t leave porch lights or garage lights on. (If these are needed for safety reasons, consider installing motion-activated lights.) And, if you are working in an office building, talk to the management about shutting off lights at night.

According to a recent article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Dallas and Fort Worth area are partnering with the Lights Out Texas Campaign, as well as the Dallas Zoo and the Perot Museum to “raise awareness of how light pollution directly leads to bird mortalities.” Houston is also participating in a Dark Skies campaign to help the birds. Austin should also do our part.

And one more thing: if you don’t already, this is a crucial time to keep cats indoors. As tired birds take a break and forage for food, they are easy victims. North America has lost 3 billion birds in the last 40 years. Let’s do what we can to help our gorgeous feathered friends make it safely as they journey through Texas.