Perhaps you’ve seen what happens when you project two massive pillars of light into the heavens from Lower Manhattan.

Symbolizing the World Trade Center’s fallen twin towers, the Municipal Art Society of New York’s annual Tribute in Light art installation packs quite the poignant punch (and a whopper of an energy bill). It also serves as a sort of hellish vortex for birds moving along the Atlantic Flyway en route to South America. Similar to moths drawn to the flame, thousands of migrating birds have been lured into the blinding columns of artificial light — a phenomenon known as fatal light attraction — en masse where they become “trapped” and disoriented, swirling round and round until they can swirl no more.

Fatal light attraction hasn’t occurred every September when the Tribute in Light pierces through the night sky above New York City. When it does, as it did in 2010, it’s the result of a complex number of factors including natural avian flight patterns, weather, wind speeds and moonlight. And if it does, the Municipal Art Society, working with New York City Audubon, is prepared to respond by shutting off the lights — 88 7,000-watt spotlights in total — for 20-minute intervals so that the exhausted, confused birds can free themselves from the transfixing beams and continue on their way to warmer pastures for the winter.

Although Tribute in Light is a dramatic example of fatal light attraction, any form of artificial illumination — lit-up skyscrapers, in particular — can potentially throw off the internal navigation systems of winged travelers that rely on the stars and the moon to safely guide them through the night.

When disoriented by artificial light, particularly during rainy conditions, birds are likely to collide with windows, walls and other objects. Some birds are simply stunned by these collisions; others are seriously injured or killed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that fatal light attraction claims the lives of upwards of 500 million birds a year throughout the United States.

To help ensure that New York City and the entirety of the Empire State is a hospitable place for migrating birds, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced a new initiative that aims to curb bird-deadly light pollution. The scheme, the New York Lights Out Initiative, requires all state owned- or managed buildings throughout the state to turn off any non-essential exterior lights from 11 p.m. through dawn during peak migration season: April 15 through May 31 and then again from Aug. 15 through Nov. 15.

State agencies will also be encouraged — but not required — to draw blinds and turn off non-essential interior lights during these times.

Cuomo, who calls the initiative "a simple step to help protect these migrating birds that make their home in New York’s forest, lakes and rivers," isn’t the first governor to embrace the National Audubon Society’s Lights Out practices. NY Audubon notes that lawmakers in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Michigan have all passed bills that aim to eliminate light pollution during peak migration months. 

There are also numerous city efforts to protect migrating birds from fatal light attraction in cities such as Chicago, Indianapolis, Baltimore, San Francisco and Toronto. Outside of state-owned buildings, NY Audubon has worked with the owners of some iconic buildings such as the Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and the Time Warner Center to better manage non-essential exterior lighting. 

In tandem with the New York Lights Out Initiative, Cuomo also announced the unveiling of a resource-filled section of the I Love New York website that’s dedicated to recreational birders.

And, completely separate from the New York Lights Out initiative, New York City officials recently mulled over a proposed bill that would limit the interior and exterior lighting of as many as 40,000 commercial buildings that largely sit empty at night. Landmark skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building would be exempt; building owners who fail to comply would face $1,000 fines. While the already controversial bill is more focused on energy savings than bird strikes, our feathered, heading-to-Mexico friends would no doubt benefit from a dimmed-down city skyline.

“Many of us have felt a sense of pride in its beauty,” Catherine Skopic, an advocate of the bill, said of the New York City skyline at a hearing held earlier this week. “However, now that we are in this climate crisis, we see these lights as something else. We see them as wasteful of energy.”

Via [Quartz], [NY Times]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.