For the Birds Radio Program: Migrating through Cities

Original Air Date: May 1, 2008 Rerun Dates: May 6, 2009

Millions of birds flying from the tropics to the north woods find themselves flying above cities en route. How can we make their passage safer?

Duration: 4′29″


Imagine a young Scarlet Tanager, recently fledged in Nova Scotia. He’s spent his entire short life in a fairly pristine eastern forest. He’s figured out which trees and branches hold the juiciest insects, and has been vigilant about strange sounds and movements, so he’s found plenty of food while eluding predators and finding safe places to hide and to sleep. He wakes up periodically throughout the night and looks at the sky. Something about the patterns of the stars above attracts his attention, and little by little he’s discovered that all the stars move in a circle, except one. Now it’s mid-August, and he’s feeling increasingly restless. One night he falls asleep at dusk and suddenly wakes up about 10 pm and takes off, into the night sky. He’s embarking on his first migration, to Peru. At first the sky looks the way it always has to him, but then he finds himself flying over a huge bright space. He’s confused by the unexpected paleness of the stars and drawn toward the bright lights ahead. Suddenly he’s caught in a milling crowd of birds, surrounded by loud thuds and hundreds of peeping calls. He wants to move on, but it’s hard to fly into darkness when the light is so bright. He’s caught in the lighted space of a tall building. Fortunately, though he doesn’t know it, people inside this particular building are concerned about migratory birds. At midnight someone turns off most of the lights, and people in lighted rooms close their shades or curtains. In the blink of an eye it’s dark and the night sky is visible once more. On he travels. In 2008, it is virtually impossible for any bird nesting in northern forests to migrate to or from the tropics without passing over dozens of major cities. By night city lights disrupt migration. By the dawn’s early light, as birds drop down after exhausting flights, they often find themselves in concrete jungles, the only vegetation locked behind the glass walls of hotel lobbies or on islands of trees along the center of busy highways, nothing at all like the forests of Nova Scotia or Peru. Providing quality habitat both where birds breed and where they spend the winter is critical to their survival. But equally critical are safe pathways, including places to rest and feed, all along their migratory routes. We build our cities along coastlines and rivers, pretty much precisely where the bulk of migration takes place. There’s a certain amount of inconvenience to making cities safer for migrating birds, but it’s still the right thing to do. Many major cities, including Toronto, New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis, now have lights out organizations that keep track of bird movements and alert the owners, managers, and residents of high rise buildings when major flights are taking place. Protecting the environment of our cities is vital to the wildlife living in and passing through. It’s also vital for human city dwellers. As the human population continues to grow, the more people who can lead satisfying lives within major cities, the less pressure there is sto develop and fragment the surrounding countryside. Thoreau wisely said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” But in quality cities is the preservation of wildness.