Plaza plan is for the birds

Posted on the Times Union Capitol Confidential blog

April 27, 2015 by Rick Karlin, Capitol bureau in Environment

Last week we had a sad-ending story about runawaybuffalo, but the news is looking up this week for feathered friends who migrate above the Hudson River.

My colleague Matt Hamilton reports that the state will turn off some Plaza lights to prevent migratory night-flying birds from flying into the towers.

Lest one thinks that’s a marginal issue in birdland, think again. When I saw Matt’s story I was reminded of an early morning tour I took a few years back with a state museum scientist, who as part of his job collects the felled birds from the plaza deck. Who would have thought?

Here’s the story on what actually happens to birds trying to navigate the Plaza airspace at night:

From 2009

ALBANY — It’s 6:45 a.m., and the bird man of Empire State Plaza is on his daily autumn death patrol.

“Let’s walk this way,” Jeremy Kirchman says cheerfully as we round the east side of the 589-foot-tall Corning Tower. “This is the building that has the most capacity to kill migrating birds.”

The Plaza is almost deserted except for a pair of workers sitting in a tiny utility vehicle watching the sun rise across the Hudson and a lone smoker taking shelter from the wind in a nearby alcove.

A light fog is lifting, which heartens Kirchman as he scans a fenced-off stretch of sidewalk, looking for dead birds.

The fog is a good sign that his search will produce results. “But bad for the birds,” he says.

Fog is one of the factors that can doom migrating birds, causing them to fly headlong into buildings like the Corning Tower. One day last year, Kirchman found seven dead birds in a single morning.

While his job might sound slightly macabre, Kirchman speaks enthusiastically about all things avian. The morning walks, after all, are just part of his job as the State Museum’s curator of birds: He’s looking for potential museum specimens.

The Plaza, it turns out, is a potential death trap for migrating passerines, often known as songbirds, as they make the annual transit from upstate New York and Canada to Central America and the Caribbean.

The birds — including cardinals, warblers and chickadees — spend their days feeding. After dark, they fly south, navigating by the stars. It’s an ability they develop while still in their nests, staring at the heavens.

When the birds pass over cities, the lights can confuse them, making it easy for them to crash into buildings or other structures. With the Hudson River valley a natural flight path and the Plaza’s towers jutting skyward, a certain number of birds are guaranteed to perish there each year.

That’s where Kirchman enters the picture.

When he finds a Plaza “crash victim,” the ornithologist tucks the dead bird into his backpack before depositing it in freezer at the museum. Then he performs taxidermy: gutting the bird, stuffing it with cotton and sewing it up. At the end of the process, it goes into the museum’s vast collection of 18,000 birds, which are stored in dark, pest-free metal cabinets. Some of the oldest specimens were collected before the Civil War.

It’s the kind of collection that serves as a treasure trove for researchers like Kirchman, a Ph.D. who has been studying the DNA of various species.

Researchers can, for example, locate where a particular bird spends it summers or winters by matching the hydrogen isotopes in its bones with the composition of the water supply in a given region.

Samples also can help provide insight into climate change. Warming in the northern latitudes would mean that birds are migrating later in the year — although birds found on the Plaza haven’t suggested any such trends so far.

“Long-term data sets are valuable, and museums are the longest-term data sets,” Kirchman said.

Using DNA samples from a Philadelphia museum, Kirchman recently co-authored a paper, published in the scientific journal Biology Letters, concluding that a type of South American hummingbird now believed to be extinct was a unique species rather than a hybrid.

It’s the kind of finding that helps provide a better picture of bird evolution.

Kirchman’s work with collision victims also touches on the debate over wind turbines, a growing hazard for migrating birds.

He has received specimens collected at the bottom of wind turbines that have helped the Department of Environmental Conservation, which officially monitors the turbines, identify some of the most unlucky species. “Last year, I got a giant bag of birds,” Kirchman said.

The 37-year-old Chicago native got into the habit of morning bird walks while working at that city’s famous Field Museum, where collections manager David Willard would go on similar hunts. With lots of glass and its location on the edge of Lake Michigan, the Field is a veritable bird magnet.

Kirchman mentions his bird searches during lectures. Sometimes, he says, “People think that it’s sad.”

But in the great scheme of things, these bird-vs.-building incidents are more akin to random accidents — like human auto fatalities — instead of systemic threats like disease or the effects of pollution. The collisions, he notes, aren’t nearly numerous enough to threaten any species.

On this day, Kirchman completes his regular circuit without finding anything new for the collection. “Most days you find nothing,” he says.

Here’s today’s announcement about the lights out policy:

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced that state buildings will participate in the New York State Lights Out Initiative, joining the Audubon Society in the charge to reduce sources of light pollution that disrupt and disorient birds during migration. State-owned and managed buildings will turn off non-essential outdoor lighting from 11:00 p.m. to dawn during the times of peak bird migration: from April 15 through May 31 and August 15 through November 15. The Governor also launched the new I Love NY Birding website, which will provide visitors with information on bird watching and how to participate in the Lights Out initiative, among other tools.

“This is a simple step to help protect these migrating birds that make their home in New York’s forests, lakes and rivers,” Governor Cuomo said. “I encourage anyone interested in learning more about New York’s birds and their migrations to visit the new I Love NY Birding website.”

Many species of shore birds and songbirds rely on constellations to help them navigate to and from their summer breeding grounds throughout the state. Excessive outdoor lighting, especially in adverse weather conditions, can cause these migrating birds to become disoriented, a phenomenon known as fatal light attraction. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture this phenomenon has led to the death of an estimated 500 million to a billion birds annually in the United States through collisions with windows, walls, floodlights or the ground.

By adopting Audubon Society’s Lights Out program, the state is joining with a number of iconic New York properties that were enlisted by New York City Audubon such as Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and the Time Warner Center to minimize factors that can lead to fatal light attraction. As part of this initiative, state agencies will also be encouraged to draw blinds-when possible and turn off non-essential indoor lighting during Lights Out times.

Additionally, as part of a greater statewide effort to promote New York’s great outdoors and make access to outdoor recreation information more available, the Governor launched the I Love New York Birding website (, an online resource to learn more about bird watching and to discover premier birding destinations throughout New York State. The website features a destination search tool, state birding events, tips and guides for a successful birding trip. It also provides resources such as birding checklists, citizen science monitoring, atlases and online tools (apps). Visitors to the webpage will also find tips on what to do if an injured or orphaned bird is found, how to fish responsibly, how to make gardens bird-friendly, and information on how you can participate in Lights Out New York.

Executive Director of Audubon New York Erin Crotty said, “Audubon commends Governor Cuomo for his leadership in launching these new initiatives to protect migrating birds and showcase the spectacular bird watching opportunities throughout New York. Bird migration is one of the incalculable wonders of nature. With spring migration underway, the State’s commitment to ‘Lights Out’ is an important step to increase their protection. The I Love New York birding website is an important tool to support the economic activity of bird watchers. We look forward to continuing to work with Governor Cuomo and his administration to advance these and other critical conservation measures.”

“Many bird species migrate or hunt at night and lighting at night can negatively impact their instinctive behaviors,” said Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens. ‘This initiative will increase more natural settings for birds and help foster the long-term sustainability of our precious natural resources.”

“Migratory birds are an important part of our ecosystem, and we stand with Governor Cuomo in support of the New York State Lights Out Initiative,” RoAnn Destito, Commissioner, Office of General Services said. “We are happy to ensure that non-essential lighting on OGS-managed buildings is turned off during times of peak migration in the spring and fall.”

Lights Out New York will strengthen the state’s ongoing efforts to reduce light pollution. New York has already enacted new Public Building Law regulations, to take effect in December, that will limit the installation of new outdoor lighting on state managed lands and put restrictions on the brightness, glare and direction of outdoor lighting fixtures. New York’s Lights Out Initiative will precede the implementation of these regulations and help take immediate action to improve the state’s energy efficiency and nighttime environment not only for wildlife but for those looking to enjoy the beauty the nighttime sky.