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Tower Lights Will Soon Blink for the Sake of Birds

With a simple blink, tall towers can go from deadly to bird-friendly

Broadcast towers will soon blink for the sake of birds. (David Kadlubowski/Corbis )
smithsonian.com

If you’ve ever flown into a city at night, you’ve likely marveled at how a pilot can easily avoid dark, tall towers dotted with still, red lights. But that placid landscape is a nightmare scenario for birds that are drawn to the lights—and their deaths. Millions of songbirds meet their end thanks to steady red lights each year. But now, reports Aarian Marshall for CityLab, there’s a new player in the fight to save songbirds from colliding with communication towers: The Federal Aviation Administration.

After years of research and steady pressure from conservation groups, Marshall writes, the FAA will shift its regulations to require that communication towers use blinking lights instead of steady ones. The requirements came down in December of last year, when the FAA released an advisory requiring new lighting and marking standards to reduce tall structures’ impacts on migratory birds. Now, the FAA requires that new communication towers all have flashing red lights, and others have until September to adopt flashing lights.

That simple move could save millions of birds. As Smithsonian.com reported in 2013, a whopping 13 threatened bird species are among the biggest victim of communication tower crashes, and collisions with towers kill between one and nine percent of the total populations of each species every year. Tall towers suck in birds at night, when they’re flying in darkness. Attracted and disoriented by the steady beams of light, migratory birds make them their target, only to die when they crash into the towers or get tangled in power lines.  

Blinking lights, on the other hand, don’t have the same attraction for birds.

Conservation groups have long tried to call attention to the dangers of urban environments for migrating birds, as during a recent bird-skyscraper collision exhibition curated by a Canadian nonprofit. Built environments simply aren’t that kind to migrating birds whose instincts don’t tell them that populous areas aren’t the safest of highways.

That could change over time, though. Increasingly, scientists are turning their attention to the human hazards that kill migrating birds. For example, recent research shows that customizing airplane and runway lights to birds’ visual systems could dramatically decrease the number of birds that die at airports. And trained eagles are being used in other tests to figure out how to hone radar detection systems that can keep birds from colliding with wind turbines.

It’s still dangerous out there for a migrating bird, but little changes by humans could increase the chances that more of them get home safely.

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