By James McCarty, The Plain Dealer
Published: September 29, 2017

In the predawn darkness on a steamy mid-September morning, hours before the downtown sidewalks bustle with commuters, a dozen people carrying butterfly nets gather on East 6th Street beside the Drury Plaza Hotel.

They discuss their game plan as the chip calls of migrating thrush and warblers serenade them overhead. Unfortunately, many of these songbirds will not survive the overnight flight they have made across Lake Erie.

But Tim Jasinski, a member of the wildlife staff at the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center in Bay Village, and his band of bird-rescue volunteers are there to help the hundreds of migrants that venture into the deadly downtown canyons of skyscrapers receive a second-chance at completing their journey to Central and South America.


Lincoln’s Sparrow is gently held before feeding, Tuesday, September 19, 2017. This bird was rescued in downtown Cleveland. (Marvin Fong / The Plain Dealer)
Tim Jasinki is part of a group of volunteers that searches for injured birds in downtown Cleveland, OH, Tuesday, September 19, 2017. Jasinki is from the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center. (Marvin Fong / The Plain Dealer)
Wilson’s Warbler is gently held receiving medication, Tuesday, September 19, 2017. This bird was rescued in downtown Cleveland. (Marvin Fong / The Plain Dealer)

Shortly after 5 a.m., the Lights Out Cleveland volunteers split into three groups and head off in different directions downtown in search of birds stunned or killed in mid-flight collisions. The volunteers identify the birds, log the data into a notebook and place them into paper bags to be tended to later that morning at the nature center.

Jasinski sets a brisk pace, typically logging more than 20,000 steps a day on his rounds. His record high is 36,000 steps, or about 19 miles, which he set this past spring.

For about four hours every morning, from mid-August to November, Jasinski and his volunteers can be found scouring the sidewalks near Public Square.

The first bird he finds is a Lincoln’s sparrow that likely was hatched on the Alaskan tundra and flew thousands of miles across North America to the north side of the Cleveland Convention Center, where it died. The building is almost entirely encased in glass, which reflects the trees and sky from across Lakeside Avenue.

The birds, which migrate at night navigating by starlight, have problems discerning the sky from the reflection, and sometimes fly unaware into the glass at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. Some are only stunned, but an estimated 60 percent suffer fatal brain injuries.

The activity heightens for Jasinski and colleagues Kaity Ross and Stan Searles as they continue their trek along the dark urban corridors. They pick up another Lincoln’s sparrow and a mourning warbler, both dead.

At the Global Center for Health Innovation, Jasinski runs ahead. He has spotted movement on the sidewalk and pounces, netting a tiny warbler, a common yellowthroat, that has just struck the glass wall.

“Our first live one of the day!” he announces at 6:05 a.m. “He didn’t hit it real hard. I think he’ll be OK.”

There is a flurry of action as the group approaches Key Tower. Ross nets a live mourning warbler, Searles snags another yellowthroat, and Jasinski bags an American redstart and two magnolia warblers.

Then they hit a roadblock. A construction fence has been erected along the south side of the tower, and they can clearly see at least five birds on the sidewalk beside the building. A security guard ignores their pleas for access.

But good fortune comes their way. A construction worker on a cigarette break says, “Sure,” he’ll lend a hand, and proceeds to pick up a live redstart and a Wilson’s warbler, as well as dead Nashville and blackpoll warblers. A black-and-white warbler escapes under its own power.

Jasinski spends much of the morning forging goodwill relationships with building cleanup crews. He asks the janitors to save the dead birds rather than toss them into the trash, and urges them to call his cell phone if they encounter any live, stunned birds.

By 9 a.m., the Lights Out Cleveland volunteers have recovered 42 birds: 24 alive, 18 dead.

“This was just one day,” Jasinski said. “If we hadn’t been there people would have stepped on them, or a gull would have eaten them, or a janitor would have swept them up with the trash.”

That ratio isn’t always so good, though. This past Monday, the crew caught nine live songbirds, but collected 27 dead ones.

To date during the fall migration, Lights Out Cleveland has recovered 440 birds, about half of which were alive.


Later each morning during the migration, Jasinski takes the live birds to the Nature and Science Center, where he administers a small dose of anti-flammatory medication, which helps to ease the pain and the swelling of a collision, he said.

“At first they’re crazy, flying wildly around the cage,” Jasinski said. “They’re hungry, they’re scared, they’ve flown hundreds of miles overnight, so they panic. Then they see the bugs. They eat and take a nap.”

Ideally, the volunteers will release the recovered birds that same day or the following day to resume their migratory journey south, far from the dangerous habitat of downtown Cleveland.

Soon, Jasinski’s volunteers will have reinforcements: Harvey Webster, director of wildlife resources at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, has enlisted the assistance of the ambassadors from the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. The ambassadors are employed to assist stranded motorists, provide directions to visitors and help keep the streets and sidewalks clean. Now they also will help collect dead songbirds in freezer bags for research, and call Jasinski whenever they spot live birds, Webster said.

Webster also is working with the Lights Out Cleveland group to negotiate agreements with downtown building owners to douse their lights at night during the spring and fall migrations. Later, he hopes to convince them to install ultraviolet film on their glass that is visible to migrating birds, but not to people.

“We need to get the word out,” Jasinski said. “Birds, lights and glass don’t mix.”

In North America, Toronto’s Fatal Light Awareness Program and Chicago’s Bird Collision Monitors program are leading the way to preventing bird deaths from building collision and rescuing injured birds.

Ornithologists estimate that the Toronto skyline accounts for about 1 million bird deaths a year. A new study found that up to 1 billion birds die from window strikes every year in the U.S. alone, killing about 10 percent of the entire U.S. bird population — the leading cause of bird deaths in North America.

Chicago’s Bird Collision Monitors educated the business community on the dangers of lighting and glass, and in 2004 the city became the first in the U.S. to have its skyline go dark during migration. Since then, the city has reduced window strikes by 80 percent per year.

Even with those measures, the Bird Collision volunteers collect up to 6,000 birds per year, up to half of which are alive and taken to wildlife rehabilitation centers.

This article was originally posted on with additional photos:

Good Samaritans rescue hundreds of stricken songbirds from downtown sidewalks