By Mark Oprea
Published June 7, 2023

Lights Out, a volunteer operation, is trying to expand their downtown patroller base and implore buildings to adopt bird-safe glass and turn lights out at night

Michelle Manzo, of Lights Out, holds a small black-throated green warbler that hit the side of the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Manzo is a regular bird patroller for the organization.   Mark Oprea

Recently, at 4:30 in the morning, Michelle Manzo woke up in her west side apartment and drove downtown sporting a neon reflective safety vest and lugging a sea-foam green net a child might use to catch butterflies. As soon as she arrived in front of the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to meet friends Kent Starrett and Brenda Baber, she was crestfallen.

“They turned all the lights on, for whatever reason,” Manzo recalled, walking through an alleyway near East 9th and Rockwell hours later, as Starrett and Baber trailed her. She had heard the melodic call of an ovenbird close by, and feared that the FieldHouse’s glow would lead to a collision.

Manzo related the ovenbird’s voice. “How would you describe it?” she said. “Teach-er! Teach-er! Teach-er!

Manzo, along with Starrett and Baber, are the central force of Lights Out Cleveland, a nonprofit group of volunteer patrollers formed to curb, and one day eliminate, bird-building collisions. It’s a particularly bad phenomenon here in Cleveland. Three-thousand birds a year, on average, have been scooped—dead or still alive—up by Lights Out patrollers since the organization formed in 2017.

Brenda Baber, Michelle Manzo and Kent Starrett, all volunteer birders for Lights Out, stand in front of the Hilton building downtown in early June.   Mark Oprea

Tim Jasinski, a wildlife rehabilitation specialist and lifelong birder who helped birth Lights Out, told Scene that, due to its unique position in the southward stream that is the songbird migratory path, Downtown Cleveland is about one-and-a-half to two times as lethal for avian species than any other city in Ohio.

“It’s not good,” he said. “You can do the math on that. That’s a lot of birds.”

Running primarily on donations through the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center in Bay Village and volunteer birders, Lights Out is facing a sort of understaffing setback. And at the worst time. While they’ve collected, saved, or healed 697 birds since migration began in January, Jasinski estimated that the fall return trip—birds with their offspring—could ramp that number up to 2,500.

It’s quite a daunting number for volunteers like Manzo, especially when ranks remain thin. On any given day, no more than three to five patrollers show up, to circle glass-heavy buildings and bag bird carcasses for three hours at a time. (Jasinski said Lights Out needs “about a dozen” volunteers to sufficiently wrangle the five downtown routes.) A gig that isn’t appealing for everyone.

A small enclosure at the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center was converted into a sort of halfway facility for healing birds, who, after close observation, will be set free.   Mark Oprea

“I mean, it’s a lot of walking, it’s early mornings, and it’s a lot of death. It sucks,” Jasinski said. But the alternative isn’t feasible. Without Lights Out patrolling, birds “will be swept up and thrown in the trash if we wouldn’t collect them,” he said, “or eaten by gulls or rats, or whatever.”

A self-taught birder and wildlife specialist, Jasinski grew up in Northeast Ohio enthralled by collecting practice. When he was seven, he started carrying home maimed cardinals and pigeons, to place in little cages in his bedroom.

“I’m just really good at catching stuff,” Jasinski said, walking around the Nature Center rehab center in khaki shorts and Merills. Jasinski checked on the various kennels and enclosures where, on average, 30 birds per day with drooping wings or ossifying skulls heal. Five interns worked around him, entering data or measuring earthworms for baby robins.

Jasinski gripped a grey catbird, from a marked paper bag, to administer a drop of meloxicam, a pain reliever.

“It’s just a little drip on their bill,” he said. The catbird froze in Jasinski’s palm. “He has a shoulder fracture. Probably could be a cat attack, could be a window collision.”

Tim Jasinski a wildlife rehab specialist at the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center in Bay Village, administers a grey catbird a dose of meloxicam, an anti-inflammatory pain medication. It’s like the catbird will be released three to five days after.   Mark Oprea

After working for Pet Supplies Plus for 15 years, in 2010 Jasinki scored a seasonal internship working in the Nature Center’s basement rehab clinic, where up to 115 of species—including, this season, 157 American Woodcocks, 137 Common Yellowthroats and four hairy woodpeckers—have been nursed back to health.

In early 2017, after 18 injured woodcocks were brought in, Jasinski knew he needed a birding patrol group, the kind that existed already in downtown Columbus and Chicago. He petitioned Harvey Webster, the chief wildlife officer at the Museum of Natural History, and Matthew Shumar, a coordinator of the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative, to formulate Lights Out’s collaboration team. The cause is simple from the environmentalist’s perspective: the early-morning light and reflective glass of Downtown’s buildings messes with birds’ deep migratory instincts.

“They’ll collect there to feed,” Manzo told Scene on a recent patrolling outing, pointing to a range of sumac trees near the Federal Building. “And then they are flying around, and they think they can go straight, and—bam!—there’s a glass plate.”

“They see the reflection,” Starrett, a retired IT technician in his early seventies, said nearby. “They think that’s just more trees.”

The Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse glass facade is particularly lethal for migrating birds, due to its high reflection and its propinquity to tree lines. The FieldHouse, Jasinski said, are well aware, and are taking steps to manage its lighting. “They’re very helpful,” he said.   Mark Oprea

Though not all volunteers admit it, they’re one-half planning advocates leaning on political interest. Like in Chicago, one of the first Bird Friendly cities in the country, patroller-activists are at constant battle with developers and building owners, either attempting to sell the benefits of non-reflective glass or urging the latter to install light-dissipating glass, like the popular Feather Friendly window markers.

According to Jasinki, after Cleveland State University installed such on its College of Law building, the patrol stop—one of Starrett’s busiest routes—became obsolete.

“They put Feather Friendly on it, and haven’t had a collision since,” he said.

As far as problematic buildings that are frequent stops, the Federal Building and AECOM building on East 9th come to mind. Public Square is dangerous due to its quantity of vegetation. The Huntington Building, once a high target for bird collisions, was convinced by Lights Out to extinguish its nighttime lighting. Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse officials, Jasinski said, are “trying lighting options now.”

“They’re very helpful,” he added. “Good people. They understand.”

That’s the ultimate legislative goal, to make Lights Out essentially non-needed: to, one day, see legislation introduced in County Council to force all new construction to carry Feather Friendly glass, in some capacity. Sunny Simon, the chair of Cuyahoga County Council’s Education, Environment & Sustainability Committee, is rumored to be working on such.

On the recent patrol, a little past 8 a.m., the sunrise brightening the noisy trees on Prospect Ave., Manzo and her team talk bird law, the city’s awareness of what they do, about “what we’d do if we had 20 of us.” (Expand.) If anything, Lights Out has only made friends in their eight-mile treks. Construction workers tease them. Security guards know them on a first-name basis.

“We’ve gotten to know the maintenance people at every building,” Baber said as the group trekked south towards the FieldHouse. “They’ll be like, ‘Hey! I saved this bird! I put it over in the flower box for ya!'” Baber smiled. “Yeah, they’ll actually do that for you.”

As the team regrouped, pausing for a break, a tiny thud is heard some 15 yards up the block. Per the group’s instinct, their heads turn to examine.

“We got a bird here! I think we got a bird!” Starrett shouted, already in a sprint.

“Ohhhh,” Manzo said, in tones of mourning.

Starrett runs over to rescue a warbler.   Mark Oprea
Manzo and Baber prepare the net and bag.   Mark Oprea
A black-throated green warbler.   Mark Oprea

Manzo and Baber circle a small black-throated green warbler, a songbird with black wings and a yellow throat. Manzo kneeled, and gently covered the warbler with her net, before softly stroking its feathers. Baber prepared the paper bag. For a brief moment, a hush fell over the group as the warbler went still upside on Manzo’s palm. “Oh,” Baber said, “I don’t think he’ll make it.”

The warbler was placed in the bag, later to be frozen and sent to Hiram College ornithologists. (Another backlog at the moment.) Manzo stood up. She tilted her head, as if to preempt another collision.

“Sometimes it can be heartbreaking at this building,” she said. “You can be picking up a bird, and another one’s going to fall right next to you.”

Minutes later, exactly that happened. The group rushed over. “Go! Go! Get away from there!” Starrett screamed to the seagull that swooped in.

“Oh,” Starrett said, approaching the bird body. “It’s just a house sparrow.”

“Yep,” Manzo said, walking away. “We don’t take them. They’re pests.”

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This article was originally published on Cleveland Scene:

Downtown Cleveland Sees the Most Bird-Building Collisions In Ohio. This Group Wants to Eliminate Them