Downtown Fort Worth will go ‘Lights Out’ this spring and fall to save migrating birds

March 16,2021

See Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Haley Samsel here.

Nearly three years ago, Kate Johnson spotted an opportunity for Fort Worth to lead the way on saving millions of migratory birds flying through Texas each spring and fall. An avid bird watcher, Johnson stumbled upon a presentation given by researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the world’s leading authorities on birds.

Their plan? To convince city officials and high-rise owners to turn out their decorative lighting every night for several weeks as part of Cornell’s Lights Out campaign, a coordinated effort to reduce light pollution and disruptions to migratory patterns. Each year, between 365 million and 988 million birds are killed when they collide with buildings, according to studies cited by Cornell.

“After the Cornell team gave a presentation to civic leaders last February, we were off to the races and opening conversations with the city,” said Johnson, a director at the Amon G. Carter Foundation. “Then all of it, of course, disintegrated with COVID.”

With help from former First Lady Laura Bush and other environmental leaders, Johnson’s vision has finally come to life in Fort Worth. Throughout the spring and fall migration periods, the city’s skyline will dim between midnight and 6 a.m., making Fort Worth the first major Texas city to sign on to the Lights Out campaign for the full season, said Julia Wang, project leader at the Cornell Lab.

Eleven buildings, including the Bank of America Tower, Pier 1 Building and the Trinity Terrace, began turning off lights on March 8 and will continue through May 31. The fall migration period will last between Aug. 15 and Nov. 30, when more than 1 billion birds travel through Texas on a superhighway moving south.

“All of the pieces of the puzzle came together for Fort Worth to participate,” said Andy Taft, the president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., which partnered with city officials on Lights Out. “Nobody wants to kill migratory birds, and if the science is suggesting that there is something that we can do about it, and it is as easy as this, then why not try? Why not be a part of this?”

The move comes five months after Dallas issued a proclamation encouraging residents and businesses to turn out non-essential lights for a week during the fall migration period. Light pollution can create a “deathtrap” for migratory birds, which are drawn out of their typical elevation and into a chaotic downtown environment, Texas Conservation Alliance executive director Ben Jones told the Star-Telegram last year.

Lights Out Texas has grown at a rapid pace since last fall, with campaigns planned this spring in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso, according to Jones. Bush’s organization, Texan By Nature, played a large role in attracting attention to the issue in both Dallas and Fort Worth.

Johnson works closely with Deedie Rose, a philanthropist promoting Lights Out in Dallas and a close friend of Bush. Thanks to the connection with Rose, Bush sent a letter to several building owners in downtown Fort Worth asking them to support the campaign this year.

“I’m so shocked that we’re even this far, this fast,” Johnson said. “The more I work with Cornell, I’m overwhelmed by what we can do to turn this messed up environment around. It’s a simple thing, and it’s also going to benefit economically and educationally.”

The economic upside for businesses and residents is an incremental decrease in energy costs, though Taft said that wasn’t a central reason why building owners signed on to the program.

“It is so important for all of us to act locally to support our global environment and this is just one small way we can do our part,” said Laura Bird, the president of Anthracite Realty Partners, which owns Frost Tower.

Brandon Bennett, Fort Worth’s code compliance director, pointed to a 2019 Cornell Lab report finding that Dallas was the third most dangerous city in the U.S. for migratory bird collisions. Given Fort Worth’s proximity to Dallas, Bennett’s department engaged in conversations with local building owners about what they could do to help.

“We didn’t enact an ordinance that requires it, but since there’s a business need, a community need and a migratory bird need, they’ll participate in making their journey a little safer,” Bennett said. “We just felt like we are the type of city in the type of community that this would be an easy sell and, in fact, it was.”

In addition to reducing light pollution, the Cornell Lab is coordinating a statewide collection of birds that died as a result of building collisions, according to Wang. Texas A&M will serve as the main repository, where scientists will work to analyze why certain species may be more prone to collisions or which environmental conditions produced the most collisions, Jones said.

“We have pretty good estimates for building collision mortality across the U.S. annually, but there hasn’t been much in the way of on-the-ground efforts that have been large scale and controlled to understand where the collisions are happening across Texas,” Wang said. “We’re really trying to get collision monitoring efforts in as many major Texas cities as possible.”

Bennett and Taft said they have not seen high numbers of bird collisions near downtown, and will be interested to see the scientific data produced by Cornell’s team this year. While Jones partnered with the Perot Museum to count bird mortalities in Dallas last fall, Fort Worth does not have a collision monitoring effort in place for 2021.

Taft and city leaders are also not committing to turning out the lights indefinitely, with Bennett noting that every group involved will evaluate what changes may need to be made after the first year. He envisions a Lights Out award for buildings that participate in the initiative, including those that sign on after the initial announcement in March.

Efforts to reduce light pollution are not limited to businesses or high-rises, Johnson said. Fellow bird watcher Marty Leonard, who helped promote Lights Out to Mayor Betsy Price’s office, listed steps that residents can take to prevent collisions at their own homes, including closing curtains, turning off outdoor lighting at night and putting up stickers that make windows more visible to birds.

Reducing building collisions, and supporting migratory birds during their journeys, will require a cultural shift across the state, Wang said. Johnson said there is still a long way to go to educate the public about the need to support wildlife.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and this is just the starting blocks,” Johnson said. “Every single family can help. It takes a village, and the more lights that go down, the better off we’re going to be.”