Migrating and nocturnal birds use the moon and stars for navigation during their bi-annual migrations. Light pollution hides their navigational aids. The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) reports that birds often crash into brilliantly-lit broadcast towers or buildings, or circle them until they drop from exhaustion.
Hawaii birds confuse Friday night lights with moon
KAPAA, Hawaii – The annual emergence of the Newell’s shearwater fledgling birds have been disrupted by the football stadium lights of local high schools in Kauai County. The young birds mistake the bright lights at sports fields, hotels, parking lots and other places for the moon and stars, leading them to repeatedly fly around in circles.
They become exhausted and eventually drop to the ground, where they’re often attacked by cats or hit by cars unless they are rescued by volunteers. The species is also threatened by pigs and goats that trample on their nests. The fledglings take off between Sept. 15 and Dec. 15 each year, which occurs in the middle of the football season.
The Newell’s shearwater birds’ population, which numbered about 80,000 in the mid-1990s, has plunged 75 percent in recent years as Kauai grew in size and added more lights that confuse the birds. In 2005, The U.S. Justice Department said federal wildlife officials notified the county that its lighting was hurting the birds, in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The government said the county failed to install shielded lights that shine down on the field, not out, thus being less harmful to the birds.
So, this season, rather than face possible federal prosecution for failing to protect seabirds, the Kauai Interscholastic Federation changed the football schedule so its Friday night games would run on Saturday afternoons instead. For those days closest to a full moon, schools allow later games because birds are less likely to be confused by artificial lights.
Due to the schedule changes, game attendance is down an estimated 14.5%. Fans don’t like sitting in the hot Hawaiian sun and players complain about the high daytime heat. Players are advised to be extra vigalint against heatstroke by drinking more water.
The county ultimately reached a deal with prosecutors in which officials will install shielded lights at Kauai’s three football fields by next season. Any night games next year will have to be played under the specially designed shielded lights, and the county must have an escrow account to cover fines for any birds downed during the games. Note that the shielding should allow the schools to use less lights as more of each light will be directed downwards on the fields where it is needed.
However, instead of finding ways to solve the problem and not to hurt this fellow species on our planet, some of the around 2% of the local population that attends the games is angered at the birds. T-shirts have been made to declare their preference for night games rather than be concerned this species is threatening to become permanently extinct. And there are reports that island residents warned that some people are talking about refusing to rescue birds they see on the ground just to protest the Saturday games.
Hundreds of dead birds found outside high school
When teachers and students arrived at Tucker County High School, they found hundreds of dead birds scattered along the parking lot and school property.
The Assistant Principal Mickel Bonnett encountered birds swarming around the school and flying into the windows when he came to work around 6:30 a.m. Monday. “They were swarming around the lighted entry trying to get into the school,” Bonnett recalled. “I thought that was unusual, and then I saw dead birds. I saw more birds flying around and banging into the glass and decided to call the superintendent.” Bonnett said he thought the birds were attracted to the lights inside the school as it was dark outside. One after one, they continued smacking into the side of the school, plummeting to their death.
“Anywhere that had light shining out, they were flying their bodies into the glass,” Bonnett said. “It was instant death. They broke their necks and were lying in piles by the door. Some were out by the track, the driveway, spread all over the place. I figure some of them didn’t hit so hard, fractured their skulls and died elsewhere.” Officials closed the school Monday morning after fears that toxins might have killed the birds. Several of the creatures were left stunned and recovered.
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources spokesman Hoy Murphy said wildlife officials at the scene found the birds piled up against one wall under a window, on the roof and scattered throughout the school grounds.
The DNR believes that the birds, which were mostly yellow warblers, were migrating from North America to South America for the winter. They theorized that the birds became disoriented from the fog and lighting around the school and proceeded to fly into structures. “Migratory songbirds migrate at night and use stars to navigate,” Murphy said. “If stars are obscured by clouds or fog, they will orient to almost any elevated light source to attempt to navigate.” Heavy fog was blanketing the area early Monday, and it’s likely that the illumination from the school lured birds in, he said. The school, located in Hambleton, sits on a hill and remains lit at night.
“This sort of attempt typically leads to a mortality event as the birds circle the light source, become exhausted and either collide with objects or are grounded from the exhaustion — this is likely what happened here,” Murphy said. “The same thing happened a couple of years ago when a very bright light was left on during fall migration on a foggy night at the (nearby) Fairfax Stone wind power facility.”
Other types of birds also included thrushes, around 10 warbler species, yellow-billed cuckoo, catbird and sparrows, said DNR ornithologist Rob Tallman, who was at the scene. Tallman said this type of problem isn’t all that unusual in the fall season. He said similar incidents have occurred around cell phone towers, Snowshoe Mountain Resort and other facilities. “We’re trying to remedy the situation by turning the lights off for the short-term and providing them with other lighting options that aren’t as attractive to birds.”
The neighboring windmills, which are believed to pose a threat to bats and birds, were not considered a cause of the deaths, officials said. Windmills are located about a mile from the school. Tallman said officials visited a nearby windmill site Monday and only found a couple of dead birds that had been there for several days.
For precautionary measures, DNR wildlife disease specialist Jim Crum has requested samples to be analyzed for avian flu. Officials said there were 100 percent certain, however, that this wasn’t the cause of a virus.