Hermit Thrush -- doing okay so far!
Last week on my way to work in downtown San Francisco, I found a dead bird lying in the middle of the sidewalk. At first, I walked past it along with all of the other commuters, and then my mind clicked in and I had to go back and at least figure out what it was. Turned out to be a Hermit Thrush. Not having anything to put it in (and not wanting to walk around all day with a dead bird in my pocket!), I picked up the bird with a tissue, looked at it to confirm the ID, and then wrapped it up and put it in the nearest trash can. Although unsatisfying, that somehow seemed preferable to leaving the bird right in the middle of so many unknowing footsteps.
The thrush was most likely the victim of a collision with a downtown office building during its migration, which is a common and increasingly well-documented phenomenon during spring and fall migration. It often happens on foggy or cloudy nights during those periods, when birds can easily get disoriented, and it's particularly dangerous when large office buildings leave their lights on overnight, as that only increases the disorientation of the birds. The numbers can be alarming: In Toronto, it's estimated that 10,000 birds a year are killed in building collisions in their downtown area alone.
Toronto was one of the first cities to really notice this problem, and to try to do something about it: The Fatal Light Awareness Program (or FLAP) was founded there in 1993 to monitor the problem and to try and find solutions. Their main work is two-fold. First, volunteers patrol the downtown streets in the early morning to rescue any injured birds and to census and collect the dead birds. Second, the program works to educate building owners and managers about the importance of turning out their lights during migration period, which helps save the birds (and saves on utility bills, of course). By becoming a “bird-friendly building” in the program, FLAP has been able to demonstrate to building owners and managers that it really is a “win-win-win” -- they save money, birds are more likely to survive the migration, and they got good publicity and tenant relationships.
Many other major cities now have similar programs, often organized through the local Audubon Society chapters. As just a few examples, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York all have active programs, with volunteer patrols and education programs. In Boston, Massachusetts Audubon has turned the program into a city-wide initiative, again stressing not only the saving of avian life but also reductions in energy usage and greenhouse-gas emissions.
Lights Out NY has the perfect NY tagline: “Flip the Switch, Not the Bird.” Many of the city’s iconic buildings (including the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center) now turn out their lights during the migration season. And there’s even monitoring of the Tribute in Light remembrance each September 11. Down near Wall Street, my wife once found a stunned American Woodcock, an odd-looking bird even in the best of circumstances, and then had to flag down a NYC cop to help find something to put it in and get it to wildlife rehab. Only in NY.
I did report my Hermit Thrush to the Golden Gate Audubon Society volunteer, so at least the data will be included in their migration information for 2009. As sad as it is to find something like that, and to hold a very small bird in your hand (they are very small indeed!), hopefully every little bit of data will help underscore the importance of continued action and vigilance to reduce the problem.
Although volunteering to look for dead and injured birds at the crack of dawn might not be for everyone, there are still lots of things that each of us can do to help increase awareness among the general public and building owners about these problems. I’m a realist and I know it can’t be eliminated, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying, especially when there’s so much to be gained on so many different levels.
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Birding Phil started birding in Cape May, N.J. and Central Park in New York City more than 10 years ago. Since then, his birding adventures (with his wife, Mimi Calter) have included trips to Alaska, Belize, and mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, along with a bunch of other hotspots in the continental U.S., including Florida, Texas, and Arizona). Phil was included in Chris Santella's book "Fifty Places to Go Birding Before You Die: Birding Experts Share the World's Greatest Destinations," in which Phil talked about Pt. Reyes, CA. Birdwatchers -- head on over and join the Birdwatchers group on Trails.