New York, New York, don’t turn the lights off

A new New York resident says it is mad for skyscrapers to dim their lights just to save the lives of migrating birds.

Shane O'Neill

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Topics Science & Tech

Like millions before me, the reason I moved to New York is because it really is the city that never sleeps. The lights are always on; a brash cop or cab driver is always making a racket; you can get a bite to eat or find company at any time of the day and night.

So you can imagine my horror when, just a week after I arrived, I discovered that NYC Audubon – a bird-conservation group – had announced the latest stage of its ‘lights out’ project. This involves encouraging NYC’s most iconic skyscrapers to switch their lights off at night in order to prevent migratory birds from smashing into them. Having survived the Depression and Islamist terrorism, is NYC really going to dim its lights and bow down before some sparrows?

NYC Audubon is a non-profit environmental organisation, set up in 1979 and named in honour of John James Audubon, a French-American ornithologist and naturalist who catalogued the birds of North America. Its mission is to protect the wild birds and their habitats in the five boroughs of New York City. It envisions a day when ‘birds and people in the five boroughs enjoy a healthy, liveable habitat’.

NYC Audubon is calling on the owners of and tenants in high-rise buildings to ‘turn off lights on unoccupied floors or unused space between midnight and dawn’, as BBC News reported last week. Apparently the lights disorientate migrating birds. It also wants late-night workers to draw their blinds and use table lamps instead of ceiling-mounted lights – making the already depressing prospect of working late even more so.

NYC Audubon’s scheme follows in the footsteps of other bird-saving initiatives, such as the ‘Fatal Light Awareness Programme’ (or FLAP). All of them are concerned with the alleged threat posed by high-rise buildings. ‘Across North America, more birds die from collisions each year than succumbed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill’, said NYC Audubon in a rather bold statement last week.

NYC Audubon has managed to convince the owners of some of the world’s most incredible skyscrapers to switch off their lights, including the Chrysler Building, the Empire State and the Rockefeller Centre – the same Rockefeller Centre that went up in 1930 as a 22-acre, 19-building laugh in the face of economic downturn. The centre was the creator of jobs and livelihoods for thousands, financed by a man who truly loved this city, John D Rockefeller Jr. He is surely turning in his grave now that his glowing beacon of survival in the face of adversity is being dimmed for the benefit of migrating birds.

The reasoning behind this project is that many birds, particularly in foggy or wet weather, fly at low altitudes, become dazzled by the artificial lights, and end up crashing into the giant glass-and-steel structures. But is this actually true? How great is the skyscraper threat to birds? The short answer is: we don’t know. The most striking aspect of this story is that the evidence is paltry; the scheme seems largely built on speculation. As the BBC put it: ‘[T]here is no direct evidence. [But] anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that at night… birds fly at lower altitudes, leaving them more vulnerable to flying into well-lit, glass-fronted high buildings.’ So the city that never sleeps is going to be sent to bed early on the basis of anecdotes?

Even the executive director of NYC Audubon admits that they ‘don’t know the true scope of the problem’. They speculate that 90,000 birds are killed through collisions with skyscrapers every year. Where are all the dead bodies? Apparently wind currents, predators and traffic make it very difficult for researchers to collect evidence. This all sounds a little too speculative for my liking. Why should a city which has never been shut down by real crises voluntarily turn its lights out in the face of a problem whose scope we’re not even sure about?

The New York skyline at night is one of the most breathtaking manmade views in the world. Looking out from the top of the Empire State Building, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed: the city positively throbs and glows. Such a view – and more importantly the very character of New York City – could be jeopardised by accepting the idea that cityscapes should reshape themselves in response to wildlife issues.

The NYC lights-out scheme bears a striking resemblance to the annual Earth Hour organised by the World Wildlife Fund, which since 2007 has been encouraging major cities to switch their lights off for an hour on the last Saturday of every March. As we move further from the age of Enlightenment, when advances in science, technology and society were sought after and celebrated, we seem to be symbolically plunging ourselves back into darkness. Now even the brightest city, New York, is going a little bit darker, powerfully expressing a feeling of shamefacedness about humanity’s conquering of nature and erection of vast cities.

I prefer the approach New York took to birds last year. In January 2009, Flight 1549 departed New York’s LaGuardia Airport and immediately encountered a flock of Canada geese. The geese were sucked into the plane’s engines, causing them to fail. Pilot Chesley Sullenburger successfully landed the plane on the Hudson River, with no loss of human life, and was rightly celebrated as a hero for doing so. In response to this near-tragedy, New York officials announced that they would cull 2,000 of the Canada geese in the city. This is the kind of attitude we should have towards nature in built-up areas: if it gets in the way of modernity, move it out of the way.

New York is a crime against nature; everything from its skyscrapers to the hills and lakes of Central Park is manmade, breaking all natural laws. It might sound harsh, but in a city like this, why shouldn’t we just put up with the deaths of a few thousand birds in order to continue burning bright?

Shane O’Neill is studying Mathematics of Finance at Columbia University.

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