LIGHTS OUT TEXAS: HOW IT ALL STARTED
Did you know that 1 out of every 3 birds migrating through the U.S. in spring passes through Texas? That means approximately one billion birds travel through the Lone Star State during spring migration! Because most migratory birds fly at night, bright lights of commercial and residential buildings can attract and disorient birds, causing collisions with highly reflective and clear glass windows and leaving birds vulnerable to threats on the ground. Read more about how Houston Audubon banded together to launch their Lights Out Birds program in 2017 and how it turned into a statewide initiative – Lights Out Texas.
TxN: How and why did Houston Audubon’s Lights Out for Birds program begin?
Houston Audubon: Houston Audubon manages a long-running suite of programs that address urban threats to birds, including collisions and lighting. Early grassroots data collection efforts began approximately ten years ago in Houston, but it was not until a major bird collision event involving 400 birds in Galveston in 2017 that partnership efforts began in earnest and created the momentum for significant change. Houston Audubon and American National agreed that a science-based response to the event in spring 2017 would be well-received, and a Lights Out workshop was conducted in Galveston involving community leaders and conservationists, with ornithologist Daniel Klem providing the keynote address. Right around this time, Cornell Lab of Ornithology developed their BirdCast migration forecast maps using historical radar data. By looking at these maps and tracking weather for the region, Houston Audubon staff was able to make science-based determinations of when birds have the greatest risk of collision. During these periods of high risk, Houston Audubon would release Lights Out Action Alerts on social media, tagging government officials and encouraging residents to share the alerts and participate in Lights Out at work and at home. Houston Audubon continued to grow the program and started taking pledges from community members interested in participating in Lights Out for Birds, providing Action Alerts directly to the community members’ email inboxes.
TxN: What organizations and companies were initially involved in the initiative?
Houston Audubon: American National Insurance Company was the building that inspired the program, and was thus the first participant. The company has been great at participating in Lights Out Texas each Spring and Fall. Additionally, without the help of BirdCast Technology, the initiative could not have been as successful as it is today. We were always so excited to get a BirdCast or Cornell Lab of Ornithology retweet or share!
TxN: What is BirdCast and why is it important?
Houston Audubon: The BirdCast program is not only what makes Houston Audubon’s Lights Out for Birds program so great, but is really the driving factor behind the success of the program, and of the larger Lights Out Texas initiative that is in place today. By using Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Colorado State University’s BirdCast program, Houston Audubon staff are able to track predicated migration levels and weather forecasts to make science-based determinations of when birds are at the greatest risk of collision. The accessibility of this information, thanks to the BirdCast migration maps, made it possible to make these recommendations based on actual data, not just wild guesses of when birds may be moving through a region. Finally, the visually appealing and easy-to-understand maps that BirdCast produces allow for interesting visuals, appealing to the public and inspiring them to participate in the program, protecting birds with one simple action.
TxN: What was the communities’ response to Hoston Audubon’s Lights Out for Birds program when it began?
Houston Audubon: The community support for our Lights Out for Birds program has been phenomenal. We are always blown away by how many people comment and share our Lights Out Action Alerts! We believe that knowing there is a simple action that people can take to help birds migrating through our region really appeals to many. It is such a simple action that can potentially save birds. The next hurdle is getting more companies and building managers on board as well. This is well underway thanks to the statewide Lights Out Texas Initiative made possible by a partnership with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Texan by Nature, and many others.
TxN: How did the role of collaboration fuel the success of Lights Out for Birds and for Lights Out Texas?
Houston Audubon: At its inception in Houston, Lights Out for Birds was an entirely grassroots effort to protect migrating birds flying through the region. We relied heavily on public participation and interest to drive our efforts, while also starting to lay the foundation for getting more buildings and the City government on board. When the Cornell Lab of Ornithology approached us about partnering to expand the project, it was a no-brainer! The additional partners Cornell included in this effort, from Texan by Nature to all the other city organizations gave this program the reach that it needed to start making a bigger difference not only in Houston but across the entire state. The collaboration between all of these organizations has been integral in getting governmental support, coordinating a statewide collision monitoring program, and in amplifying all of our voices to achieve great things for migratory birds!
TxN: What are the lessons learned and best practices that you would take away from starting a Lights Out program?
Houston Audubon: Our personal takeaway from being involved with this program since its very early stages is that it is OK to start small with a conservation/advocacy effort like this. By using the tools at hand and responding to conservation needs, organizations can end up making a big difference for the species they are working to protect. Another important lesson learned was the recognition that most people want to find practical solutions. In the aftermath of a terrible event, businesses, experts, and residents worked together to reduce the risk of bird collisions.
TxN: What is one thing you wish every Texan knew about bird migration and turning out Lights?
Houston Audubon: We want every Texan to know how cool it is that we have so many diverse birds coming through our state every year! I think many Texans don’t realize how biologically diverse their state is, so we would love to expose more Texans to the wildlife that rely on their home state. Texas is massively important for North America’s migratory birds, and we have a Texas-sized responsibility to protect our shared natural heritage. Keeping the stars at night, big and bright would not only help migratory wildlife find their way home, but it would help all Texans connect with nature.
TxN: What is your hope for Light Out Texas’ future?
Houston Audubon: The partnership and efforts that have come from the Lights Out Texas program this year have far exceeded what we thought was possible in such a short period of time! We are so excited to welcome the City of Houston as a participant and supporter of the Lights Out Texas initiative! We also hope that our current statewide collision monitoring efforts can inform our conservation and advocacy efforts going forward, making the program even more effective at helping migratory birds make it through our state safely each spring and fall. Overall, the goal for Lights Out Texas is to develop practical solutions that reduce wildlife mortality and inspire us to celebrate nature.
Learn More About Lights Out Texas and How You Can Get Involved:
Today, Lights Out Texas has become a statewide initiative, led by a coalition of partners that includes conservation non-profits, universities, governmental organizations, and Texans dedicated to the conservation of birds. The initiative is asking all Texans to turn off their non-essential lights at night from 11 PM – 6 AM through the full spring migration of March 1 – June 15. Where conflicts apply, it is suggested to prioritize the peak migration period between April 19 – May 7, when half of the total spring bird migration traffic passes through Texas.