Audubon's 'Lights Out' Program Kills the Lights to Save the Birds

By: Stephanie Parker  | 
darkened city skyline
City skylines are much less menacing to migrating birds when the lights are out. Perfect Vectors/Shutterstock

Buildings and windows kill roughly a billion — that's 1,000 million — birds in the United States every year, thanks, in part, to the artificial lights that disorient them and cause them to crash. In 1999, the National Audubon Society and its partners began the Lights Out program in Chicago to convince building owners and managers to turn off unnecessary lights when birds are migrating. Today more than 40 cities participate, as do entire states and regions including Lights Out Colorado and Lights Out Georgia, as well as regional programs like Lights Out Heartland.

In 2021, Philadelphia joined 47 other cities with Lights Out programs including New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Most Lights Out programs, including Lights Out Philly, ramp up again Aug. 15 through Nov. 15, 2022, to coincide with birds natural fall migration.


Why Are Lights So Dangerous to Birds?

After feral cats, buildings and windows are the second-greatest killer of American birds, especially during the two times a year when they migrate, flying between breeding and wintering habitats. Attracted by the bright, artificial lights at night, birds fly into buildings and glass windows and are often killed by the impact. If they aren't killed, their flight patterns are disrupted, causing them to become disoriented and circle in confusion and interfering with their daytime cycle of resting and refueling.

Lights Out works on mitigating this problem by requesting building owners and managers turn lights off during the migration season from midnight to 6 a.m. each morning. To create bird-friendly buildings, Audubon recommends they "turn off exterior decorative lighting, extinguish spot and flood-lights, substitute strobe lighting where possible, reduce lobby and atrium lighting wherever possible, turn off interior lighting especially on upper floors, substitute task and area lighting for workers staying late or pull window coverings, down-shield exterior lighting to eliminate all light directed upward and horizontal glare, and install motion sensors and automatic controls wherever possible."


Lights Out Philly

Philadelphia is located along a migration corridor for birds and each year, tens of millions of birds pass through the city while migrating, making it potentially dangerous for birds if too many lights are left on. Bird Safe Philly, a coalition of nonprofits, joined together with the City of Philadelphia and its building industry to help lessen the problem of birds getting killed while on their journey.

Philadelphia joined the Lights Out program in 2021, and began its first migration season April 1, the peak of spring migration. It ran through May 31 and again Aug. 15 through Nov. 15, when birds traveled south. During that time, 41 commercial, 53 residential and six municipal participants pledged to turn off their lights to help birds during the migration seasons.


The team is reviewing and analyzing data collected during the process and will have results to share at a later date, but says its inaugural efforts were positive. Chicago, however, the first Lights Out city in the nation, has reported saving 10,000 birds annually since it began the program.

Lights Out Philly is the result of a group effort led by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, Audubon Mid-Atlantic and two local Audubon Society chapters.

"You get a bunch of people together with a cause and make something happen," Jason Weckstein, curator of ornithology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, who is very involved in the Lights Out Philly program, said in 2021.


How Can You Help?

Even if your city isn't participating in a Lights Out program, you can help. There are very simple things you can do to ensure light pollution in your area doesn't harm migrating birds:

  • Turn off outdoor spotlights and/or decorative lighting.
  • Turn off interior lights when you leave a room (or close the blinds).
  • Use down-shielded lighting outdoors.
  • Add timers and/or motion sensors to outdoor lighting, where possible.

The National Audubon Society also suggests residents of major cities urge building owners, managers and other homeowners to turn off outdoor lighting during the months when bird are migrating.


While birds are facing a lot of challenges — along with the buildings, there's climate change, feral cats and habitat destruction — Weckstein is optimistic that we can figure out how to help them.

"We've done a lot of good things in the past to fix our problems," he says. "The key is investing in these things and working to fix the problems we've created."