Flying High: Celebrating World Migratory Bird Day

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas — bird migration season! It’s the time of year when birds who left Michigan during the winter months to find refuge in warmer states make their triumphant return. Look outside, and you are likely to see robins, Canada geese and sandhill cranes among the birds flying in the spring Michigan skies, happy to be back after a cold winter away.

American robin, Jennifer Harte

While everyone at the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) celebrates these birds every day, we are encouraging the public to join us in celebrating and raising awareness around the conservation of local species on World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) May 14.

WMBD, formerly International Migratory Bird Day, is an annual campaign highlighting the need for the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats. Through a collaboration of festivals and events from partners across the globe, WMBD brings awareness to the threats migratory birds face, as well as the birds’ ecological importance and the need for bird conservation.

Sandhill crane, Patti Truesdell

While all aspects of bird conservation are important, this year the organizations behind WMBD are focusing on fighting light pollution and harm it can cause to migratory birds.

Light pollution, or the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light, affects our world in numerous ways, from limiting our view of the night sky to disrupting human sleep patterns. However, light pollution’s most devastating impacts are felt by wildlife — and migratory birds are no exception.

Most birds migrate at night due to the calm skies and lack of predators. These birds use the moon and stars to guide their way — a system that has worked for eons. However, with light pollution encroaching further and further along the night sky (at a rate of increase of at least 2 percent per year, according to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute), migratory birds’ journeys are becoming increasingly dangerous. Read our recent blog post to learn more about light pollution and how to mitigate its effects on local wildlife.

When artificial lights from nearby cities enter the night sky, migrating birds can become distracted and veer off course into threatening territory. When distracted by light pollution, birds become more likely to land in dangerous areas, where they are prone to collisions and vulnerable to unfamiliar predators.

One of the biggest dangers presented to birds drawn into urban areas impacted by light pollution is needlessly illuminated office buildings. According to the International Dark Sky Association, millions of birds in the United States die each year by colliding with empty office buildings and towers that are lit up at night. Additionally, light pollution impacts migration patterns, confusing and disrupting mating and feeding schedules.

Canada geese returning to summer in Michigan.

All of this information paints a bleak portrait for the future of the feathered fowl who migrate across the U.S., but don’t lose hope! There are things each and every one of us can do to help local birds travel safely.

• First, turn off your lights at night. Unused lights, particular in unused office buildings, present a great danger to traveling fowl.

• Second, make the switch to shielded outdoor lighting. Outdoor lighting should be shielded and directed downward, where it can illuminate the ground rather than contaminate the night sky.

• Third, research and follow bird-safe habits that help reduce the hazards birds face during the migration process. In addition to turning lights off at night, these practices can include installing screens, decorative window film or window art to help prevent birds from hitting glass; moving feeders as close to windows as possible and bleaching bird feeders once a month; and practicing green gardening by growing native plants and avoiding insecticides.

Window decals can be added to increase visibility and reduce bird-strike.

The DZS has long been a supporter and practitioner of bird-safe initiatives. In 2017, we made it official by partnering with the Metro Detroit Nature Network, now known as SEMI Wild, which signed the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds, designating Metro Detroit an Urban Bird Treaty area. Among other things, the treaty promotes bird conservation through Lights Out programs. Now, five years later, we are proud to promote these Lights Out programs, which encourage organizations and individuals to turn off or reduce interior and exterior lights during spring and fall migration, in honor of WMBD.

While there is much to be done to provide our feathered friends with safe travels this migration season, know that you can play a part by turning off one light at a time.

Bonnie Van Dam is the curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.