City responds to Hill area scientists on bird die-offs

by Len Lear
Posted 3/26/21

Late last year Keith Russell, an ornithologist who grew up in Mt. Airy and now lives in Germantown, brought to our attention the fact that huge numbers of birds, as many s 1500 in one 24-hour period in October, have been dying after flying into high-rise buildings in center city “die-offs.”

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City responds to Hill area scientists on bird die-offs

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Late last year Keith Russell, an ornithologist who grew up in Mt. Airy and now lives in Germantown, brought to our attention the fact that huge numbers of birds, as many s 1500 in one 24-hour period in October, have been dying after flying into high-rise buildings in center city “die-offs.”

Russell, 64, who has been called the “Master Birder of Carpenter's Woods,” told us that in recent years birds have been dying an a rate that may be unprecedented because of events related to climate change like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, air pollution, etc.

“According to the most recent climate research conducted by Audubon,” he said last week, “many of the 300+ bird species that occur in Philadelphia, such as the Black-throated Blue Warbler and the Ovenbird, are among the hundreds of bird species that are now at an increased risk of extinction in North America because of climate change.”

Long-time Chestnut Hill resident Robert McCracken Peck, 68, Senior Fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, is another area scientist who has been ringing alarm bells on this issue. It appears that those who could actually make meaningful change have taken notice of the warnings from experts.

Prominent buildings in the Philadelphia skyline — including the Comcast Technology Center and Comcast Center, Liberty One and Liberty Two — have pledged to shut off their lights from midnight to 6 a.m. during peak bird migration seasons. Light pollution is a common source of unnecessary deaths among birds as they navigate urban environments and collide with buildings.

A coalition of groups called Bird Safe Philly on March 11 announced the “Lights Out Philly” initiative, a voluntary program in which as many external and internal lights in buildings will be turned off or dimmed at night during the spring and fall. The first phase of the program will begin on April 1 and go on until at least May 31. The coalition includes Audubon Mid-Atlantic, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club and two local Audubon chapters.

The problem of artificial lights attracting birds to their deaths in the city is well over 100 years old. “We have specimens in our ornithology collection from a kill that happened when lights were first installed on Philadelphia’s City Hall tower in 1896,” said Jason Weckstein,  associate curator of ornithology at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences.

“By participating in Lights Out Philly, the owners, managers and tenants of our buildings and other structures will be saving many thousands of beautiful migrating songbirds,” Peck told us last week. “They will also be reducing their carbon footprint, saving electricity costs and making Philadelphia a leader in bird conservation. It’s a win-win for everyone involved!  We hope everyone who owns a building, no matter its size, will join Lights Out Philly.

“The birds that will be saved from harm by Lights Out Philly enrich our lives in many ways and serve a vital part of the world’s biodiversity. All of these birds are already facing a wide range of other challenges, including habitat loss and climate change. Each spring they fly thousands of miles from their winter refuges in the south to their northern breeding grounds. Then they reverse the process each fall. By simply dimming our lights (or better yet, turning them off completely), we can help them safely navigate past the buildings and other structures that might otherwise disorient and ultimately kill them.”

In addition to the massive losses of birds from collisions with buildings, including private homes, Russell said that in the Philadelphia region grassland birds, shorebirds, marsh birds, most game birds and many migratory songbirds have also declined in abundance.

“By participating in Bird Safe Philly’s Lights Out program,” he said, “Philadelphia will not only help to protect these birds by further reducing energy consumption, which can slow climate change, but by also reducing the nocturnal lighting that threatens so many of these birds.”

For more information, visit pa.audubon.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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