Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Today’s question comes from one of our listeners. Dorothy wrote in to ask us: 

“Efforts to turn off lights for migrating birds are taking off across the US. What is Rhode Island doing?”

Excellent question. We had Emily Tom and Janek Schaller look into it. 

Emily Tom: Hi Megan!

Janek Schaller: Thank you for having us!

Megan Hall: Before we get started, we should note that our founder, Stephen Porder, is on the board of the Audubon society here in Rhode Island. Now, will you tell me - what exactly is Lights Out?

Janek Schaller: The National Audubon Society started Lights Out about twenty years ago. Its goal is to reduce light pollution and protect migrating birds. 

Emily Tom: A bunch of cities and states across the country are participating in it, including Boston and New York. 

Dr. Clarkson: So this grassroots program is designed to get these building owners or entire city governments to agree to limit or reduce the amount of light that’s emanating from these urban city centers during these peak periods of bird movement. 

Emily Tom: That’s Dr. Charles Clarkson.

Dr. Clarkson: I am the Director of Avian Research for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. 

Emily Tom: He says it’s super important to protect birds as they migrate with the changing seasons. 

Megan Hall: Don’t get me wrong, I love birds, but are lights really that big of a deal?

Janek Schaller: According to Dr. Clarkson, it’s actually one of the biggest stressors on bird populations.

Megan Hall: Why? What happens?

Emily Tom: First we have to understand that eighty percent of migratory birds travel at night. The atmosphere is more stable, there are fewer predators, and some birds actually use the stars to navigate.

Dr. Charles Clarkson: And particularly on nights in which we have poor weather forcing the migrants to fly even lower altitudes, they tend to get driven or pulled off course by bright spots on the landscape below them.

Janek Schaller: Migrating birds are drawn to bright city lights and residential areas. That confusion can be dangerous for them. 

Emily Tom: A lot of birds will circle well-lit buildings until they’re too exhausted to fly anymore. Then they’ll fall to the ground, where they usually die without food or water.

Janek Schaller: It’s also common for birds to fly into windows. The National Audubon Society estimates that up to 1 billion birds are killed every year from building collisions alone. 

Megan Hall: That’s awful. So, back to Dorothy’s question, is Rhode Island part of the Lights Out program?

Janek Schaller: Right now, no. 

Emily Tom: But the Rhode Island Audubon Society is working on getting one started soon.

Janek Schaller: In the meantime, there are a lot of ways we can reduce light pollution in our own neighborhoods. Dr. Clarkson says there are some really simple steps you can take. 

Dr. Clarkson: Those include things like local homeowners putting UV decals on the windows in their homes so that birds see the windows themselves before flying into them. And keeping your indoor lights indoors, so doing things like closing curtains at night so that light’s not shining outside of your window. 

Janek: That can make a big difference because about half of all birds killed by window strikes aren’t flying into skyscrapers in big cities- they’re flying into homes in residential neighborhoods.

Emily: These light-reduction efforts are especially important during migration season- which is April to May and from August to November.

Megan Hall: I’ll definitely remember to do that. Thank you, Emily and Janek!

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.