By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer
Published on August 30, 2019

They found nothing, and they were ecstatic.

After two hours of active scouting for dead or injured birds in the dark, a group with Lights Out Cleveland early Thursday morning was delighted to come up empty-handed, to find not one fragile flyer that had collided with a building and dropped to the ground.

It could have been much, much worse. One morning in 2017, during the height of spring migration, volunteers with Lights Out Cleveland picked up 255 birds, most of them long-distance travelers en route to Canada or Alaska from Central or South America. Lights Out Cleveland volunteer Tim Jasinski estimates the group has picked up some 5,000 birds since its inception two years ago.

Above: A group of volunteers with Lights Out Cleveland heads out at 5 a.m. to look for injured or dead birds. Below: A volunteer with Lights out Cleveland shows a few of the birds collected Tuesday, Aug. 27.

The stories of those birds are virtually the same. For one usually weather-related reason or another, the unlucky creatures fly down into Cleveland looking to rest and eat, only to become disoriented by the combined effects of lighting, glass, and reverberant tall structures.

There, in the urban jungle, the light pollution that to humans is merely annoying often proves lethal to birds. After traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles, the weary migrants become confused in the city and fly into windows or glass walls and either break their necks or die falling. A few lucky individuals survive the incidents and get picked up, cared for, and released.

“I feel like I’m contributing,” said Sandy Brown, one of about 10 volunteers who went out Thursday with Lights Out Cleveland, one of the most comprehensive and scientific groups of its kind in the nation. “It’s no fun to pick up the dead ones, but the live ones do get rehabilitation.”

The list of victims is a bird-watcher’s dream, if only the birds were alive and well. Tanagers, flycatchers, hummingbirds, warblers common and rare. All are regular casualties. Even woodcocks, drawn to flower beds and patches of grass and trees, can suffer the same fate. One day, someone picked up a long-eared owl.

Dead birds are stored in plastic bags and marked with the date, time, and location of their discovery. Because volunteers traverse the same routes multiple times each morning, they can estimate the time of death with considerable accuracy. All are then taken to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where scientists there log the information and use the birds for research and education.

The tiny body-bags weigh virtually nothing, and the birds are shadows of their living selves. A neon fluff in life, a yellow warbler in death looks thin and faded. The ovenbird’s spots, usually visible from a distance, are barely bold enough up close to aid in identification.

It’s impossible to say exactly why Thursday was so good. It could have been almost anything from the weather in Canada to the clear skies and high, patchy clouds over Cleveland. Late August is also early in the season. The majority of southbound migrants travel in September and October.

One thing that undoubtedly helped: for the first time since Jasinki has been keeping track, one of the tallest buildings downtown had turned off its lights. The largest of about 20 Lights Out Cleveland participants, 200 Public Square was dark Thursday morning. It had complied with the group’s city-wide request to turn off lights from midnight to dawn during spring and fall migration.

It was a larger version of what bird-loving humans do at their homes. By turning off its lights at night, the skyscraper had essentially done the same thing as those who put decals on their windows in hopes of preventing a few of the millions of deaths by strikes every year.

It’s an easy step, Jasinski said, a simple way reduce light pollution, preserve wildlife, and save both energy and money.

“Who are we marketing to at 2 a.m., anyway?,” he wondered. “People are just not aware. They just don’t realize how light affects birds.”

Another thing most people don’t realize? How birds affect people.

Birds may occupy the skies, but they don’t live in their own, separate world. They’re part of the ecosystem that includes humans, and a vital one at that.

They’re pollinators, seed distributors, insect eaters, and prey for larger creatures. Allow migrants to diminish and humans put at risk the entire food chain and imperil some of the prettiest of what nature has to offer.

“You wouldn’t think these little birds affect us at all, but they absolutely do,” Brown said. “Besides that, they’re beautiful.”

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Lights Out Cleveland group stands up for birds by turning down the lights