9/11 Tribute Traps 10,000 Birds


The Tribute of Lights/
Copyright (c) 2010 John de Guzman

Each year since the tragic terrorist attacks on NYC’s twin towers, on every September 11th since 2001, the Municipal Art Society has shone two bright lights skyward from Manhattan's Financial District. Known as the Tribute of Light, the beams have struck an emotional chord with a lot of residents. This year, more than 10,000 birds flew into the beams and got trapped, unable to fly away. Because they are in their fall migration, the birds could be depleting crucial fat stores by flying endlessly in the light beams, unable to get away and continue their journey south.

New York City Audubon has kept an eye on the light tribute, and when they saw the gathering of helpless birds, let the Municipal Art Society know so they could shut down the beams (Migratory birds are protected by federal law).

"We have a protocol in place in partnership with the Municipal Arts Society in case something happens like it did on Saturday night," explains John Rowden, Citizen Science Manager for NYC Audubon. "There were huge numbers of birds flying through and large numbers did have difficulty navigating out of the beams. Through the course of the night we shut the lights off five times for approximately 20 minutes each time, which allowed the birds to clear out (and then new birds moving through would accumulate). The Municipal Arts Society were very supportive of our goals of minimizing risk to migratory birds." A similar situation happened in 2004 but because of the ways birds navigate the skies, and the way local weather affects their migration routes, these large numbers of migratory birds do not always pass through NYC on September 11th.

Lights pose problems for birds far beyond the Tribute of Lights. According to the New York chapter of the National Audubon Society website, Susan Elbin, the NYC Audubon director of conservation, said that 90,000 birds die annually in New York City, because of collisions with the reflective glass in buildings. Birds fly into glass that reflects sky, clouds, trees, and get disoriented by artificial that interfere with their natural navigational cues, especially in foggy and rainy weather. In 2005, NYC Audubon initiated the Lights Out New York campaign to encourage city dwellers to turn out lights at night between September through November. Dozens of Manhattan skyscrapers participate in the program, including the Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, and JP Morgan Chase among others.

The concept got started by a Toronto-based conservation group called Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), in 1993. As they say, “Across North America, more birds die from collisions each year than succumbed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.” It's easy to get upset by images of oiled birds, but so many more die by this relatively unknown, and largely preventable means.

Downtown Chicago also has a lights out program, in which over 100 buildings go dark during the spring and fall bird migration months. That also saves bundles of money for businesses. Metro Hall in Toronto saved 2100,000 in a single year after implementing the lights out protocol!

As for the 9/11 Tribute of Light, it will go on as scheduled through next year – the 10th anniversary – but after that the Metropolitan Art Society would like to see it as a permanent tribute. What do you think: Should they find an another form of tribute to protect the helpless birds?  (Note to commenters - please be respectful in comments or they won't be published. This is a sensitive topic).

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