The 9/11 Tribute Lights Are Killing Tons of Birds

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For a few days every September, New York City turns on two beams of light to mark the anniversary of 9/11. As a lifelong New Yorker, I think the lights are kind of nice. And yet, they are accessories to bird murder.

The New York Times reports that the annual 9/11 tribute lights screw with the migratory patterns of thousands of birds, messing up their flight paths and often endangering them. The anniversary of the World Trade Center terrorist attack happens to coincide with New York’s bird migration period—feathered friends on their way to warmer parts of the country are often drawn to the lights and trapped in them, circling endlessly as they drain the energy necessary to complete their journey down south. Birds confused by the lights can also fly into reflective glass buildings

Researchers say the lights can affect as many as 160,000 birds per year. A study published in 2017 found that between 2009 and 2016, the lights messed up the migration patterns of around 1.1 million birds, many of which succumbed to exhaustion or crashed into skyscrapers. “It’s not that birds are stupid or anything,” Dr. Susan Elbin, director of conservation and science at NYC Audubon, told Gothamist shortly after the study came out. “It’s that they don’t know glass is a barrier, and they haven’t evolved to deal with artificial light at night.”


The good news is, NYC Audubon came up with a solution. Per the Times:

With the help of binoculars, radar and the naked eye, the professional scientists and the volunteers count the trapped birds, which often include small songbirds like Canada and yellow warblers and American redstarts. Nighthawks and bats come too, to prey on insects, and peregrine falcons show up to feed on the smaller birds. When the number of trapped birds reaches around 1,000, the lights are switched off for 20 minutes to let the birds disperse.

Apparently, the 20 minute breaks are enough to get the birds back on their regular migration patterns, which mitigates the effects of the lights. It’s also noteworthy that the tribute lights have helped NYC Audubon study how urban light pollution fucks with bird migration with or without the two shining beams. Still, it seems like a real solution could include ditching the lights altogether, but hey, I’m just a bird-loving New Yorker.


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