Ignoring Threats Facing Bird Populations is a Texas-sized Risk We Can’t Afford to Take.

by Lisa Gonalez, Vice-President / Executive Director, Audubon Texas

Spring arrives differently for everyone; budding trees and thunderstorms, warmer days and pleasant evenings. For us, it's the symphony of birdsongs. And with peak spring migration underway, there’s no shortage of nature’s music. Unfortunately, this season also heightens two particular threats to our bird populations — light pollution and building collisions.  

Texas is an important stopover for birds migrating each spring and fall between Canada, the United States, and South America. Any bird you see this time of year may be on a 2,000-mile trek, stopping only to rest and refuel before going on its way again; and many have also evolved to migrate at night. That’s why conservation organizations across our state, including Audubon Texas, are calling on Texas communities to help reduce unnecessary outdoor lights through the Spring 2024 Lights Out, Texas! campaign.  

We know that where birds thrive, people prosper, and maintaining healthy avian populations is critical to our natural ecosystems and communities. But data show that North America has lost upwards of 3 billion birds over the last fifty years, and building collisions have significantly contributed to this decline. This scenario is all too familiar for birds migrating through and into Texas.  

According to a 2019 study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Houston and Dallas rank second and third on list of US cities most dangerous to birds during spring and fall migration. And in 2017, almost 400 birds died after flying into one of Galveston’s tallest buildings on a stormy night, likely being disoriented by building lights, experts said. The Fall 2023 Lights Out, Texas! Report, which compiled volunteer monitoring data from Texas metro areas, conservatively found that nearly 800 birds representing 71 species were involved in building collisions over one 16-week period, with 85% of collisions being fatal.  

Unfortunately, Houston tops the list of deadliest cities in the state — second nationwide — for migrating birds. And while several cities and counties across the state, including the City of Houston, have already committed to going lights out this season, the need for broader action is hard to understate. 

Birds are not only a source of enjoyment for those that love to watch them. They are also a legion of natural conservationists that we all rely on. They help prevent erosion by spreading native plant seeds; they organically minimize pests that damage crops and other textiles; and they stimulate our economy, generating $1.8 billion in economic impact annually. 

In urban communities, natural habitats maintained through the actions of birds reduce urban heat, store floodwaters, and improve air quality. All these benefits — and the risk of losing them — demand awareness, education, and action.  

In addition to Lights Out, Audubon Texas and partners are also engaged in other work to reduce light pollution and ensure buildings are built with birds in mind. Advocating for bird-friendly glass, retrofitting outdoor lighting to point downward, and adopting perennial lights out policies all catalyze Texas communities to implement long-lasting changes. Readily available technology tools such as Birdcast migration forecast alerts provide home and building owners with the information needed to manage seasonal lighting during migration periods. 

That’s where Texans’ role comes in. By turning off and dimming unnecessary outdoor lighting, even at your home, birds have a greater chance of reaching their final destination and fulfilling their role in our greater ecosystem.  

Anytime you’re outside, take a moment to stop and listen for that familiar symphony. It’s a frequent reminder of everything birds do for us and the small actions we can take to foster and protect these critical populations. Let’s follow the research, use available technology, and take action to protect these amazing ecological travelers, and encourage our friends, neighbors and community leaders to join us. 

While we will likely never eliminate all bird building collisions, we shouldn’t stop short of working to reduce them. Failing to do so puts our environment and the communities it sustains in jeopardy of further disruption. That’s too big a risk to take with the future of our state and our world — especially when simple actions can yield Texas-sized results.

How you can help, right now