Bright Lights, Big Mess

A program to darken the skyline could save thousands of migrating fowl.

By Dennis Rodkin

During migration season Ken Wysocki likes to roam the streets and alleys of the Loop, peering through binoculars in search of exotic visiting birds. Millions of them pass through Chicago in April and May, flying north to their summer breeding grounds in the upper midwest and Canada, and again in September and October, heading back to their winter havens. Each migration season Wysocki, an attorney who works downtown, spots three or four soras, small yellow-and-black marsh dwellers, huddled in a nook at the base of the Sears Tower’s southwest corner. He’s always glad to see them safe in a chaotic city indifferent to their presence.

Others aren’t so lucky. Wysocki says he sometimes finds as many as 15 dead birds within a three-block stretch of alleyway. “I try to get down here on Sunday mornings once in a while, because the building maintenance crews aren’t out sweeping up the birds as early on Sunday.” Some workdays he’ll come in early just to prowl around for corpses. “People I work with say they’ve never seen dead birds on the sidewalk, but that’s because they’re never here until after the maintenance people have cleaned it up.”

Hundreds, even thousands of birds die here during each migration, and bird experts say a major factor is the disorientation caused by downtown lights. Roy Endsley, general manager of the building at 311 S. Wacker Drive, says that on some mornings during migration season, his workers pick up dead birds “by the shovelful.” Other building managers have similar stories. “We’d love to be able to say something like ‘25,000 birds were killed,’ because it would help make the point about why to keep lights off,” says Judy Pollock of the National Audubon Society’s regional office. “But there’s no way of knowing.”

Chicago’s skyline will be less spectacular this month: as part of the Lights Out! program inaugurated last spring by the city’s Nature and Wildlife Subcommittee, more than a dozen skyscrapers–among them the John Hancock Center, 55 E. Monroe, the Tribune Tower, and Endsley’s 311 S. Wacker–will turn off their decorative lights during April and May, and again during September and October, to help birds pass through the city safely.

Implementing the program is pretty simple; at the Hancock, says general manager John Kapp, it amounts to “saying OK and punching into a keyboard that the lights don’t go on on the 99th floor for a certain period.” But for a city obsessed with commerce and proud of its architecture, the implications are enormous. For nine weeks the city’s massive buildup of concrete, steel, and glass–one of the most complex achievements of the human species–will take a backseat to simple little birds. A generation ago, the idea would have seemed crazy. “Some of these buildings have spent a lot of money to get their lighting to look beautiful, and here we are asking them to turn it off,” says Linda Day, the real estate executive who chairs the subcommittee. “They really are making a sacrifice by turning the lights off, but it shows they feel the world is much bigger than they are.”

The 311 S. Wacker building is a good example: when its 70-foot crown first lit up back in 1990 it became an instant landmark and, aside from the Sears Tower next door, the only building in the area to play a prominent role in the city’s skyline. With its five luminescent drums surrounded by four smaller cylinders, the building has been nicknamed the White Castle building, the Wedding Cake, and the Rook. The American Institute of Architects’ guide to Chicago calls it “a visual poke in the eye,” but it’s easily recognized at night thanks to the 2,000-plus fluorescent tubes that light the drums.

“It’s part of our look, and it’s as important to us as the Sears Tower’s size is over there,” says Endsley. “You say you work at 311 S. Wacker and people don’t necessarily know where you mean, but you say ‘the one with the white lights on top,’ and they know immediately where you are.” That distinctiveness translates into dollars too: Endsley says the building’s rental rates are among the highest in the city, between $30 and $35 a square foot. “Without the lights, we probably wouldn’t get that much.”

“This is an incredibly important thing that’s happening,” says Wysocki about the Lights Out! program. “It means that people in Chicago understand that we can do something tangible to help these birds that are flying 1,200 miles or more only to be killed by something we built in their way.”

According to ornithologists the migration goes on mostly at night. Flying singly, not in flocks, countless warblers, thrushes, woodcocks, vireos, and others fly from winter habitats as far south as South America to summer grounds as far north as the arctic. Doug Stotz, a conservation ecologist at the Field Museum, says that as many as two billion birds may traverse North America each spring. During the day, when they rest and feed, birds concentrate in Chicago, because those flying over Lake Michigan need to land. At least 150 different species stop off in Chicago, between 2.5 million and 5 million birds each season. Several million more fly over the lakefront without stopping or land farther inland.

To birds, the lakefront must look like the biggest gas, food, and lodging sign anywhere on their haul. Famously free of buildings, it provides them with shrub cover to rest in and bugs and seed to replenish their energy. In other waterfront cities the buildings push right out to the shoreline, but as Stotz explains, “when they get to Chicago, birds don’t have to fly another mile or two inland to find habitat. They can land right there on the lakefront.”

Unfortunately, not too far from the water’s edge is a mass of confusing lights. Scientists don’t understand why, but migrating birds often fly toward big lights. Sometimes they collide with the building and die; more often they fly around it incessantly, either dying of exhaustion or accidentally bumping into the building. Robb Diehl, a PhD candidate in ecology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says the problem is especially bad on foggy nights. “You get more of a haze of light than discrete lights from each building. Migrants are attracted to that haze of light and fly around and around and eventually hit something.”

Diehl thinks the birds who fly into the lights of skyscrapers and high-rises are outnumbered by those who fly into the lit windows of houses and apartment buildings, but the ones who die because of skyline lights are less expendable. The ones hitting houses are “mostly birds like cardinals that live near our houses. Their populations overall are doing fine and aren’t of conservation concern. The birds that are showing signs of decline are the migrants, especially the neotropical migrants that spend the winter in the tropical regions of the Americas. These are things like flycatchers and thrushes and vireos and warblers. They’re the ones hitting tall buildings–the ones whose populations can least afford it.”

Birders and ornithologists have known for years that the city skyline was a death trap for migrating birds. One morning in the early 1970s, William Beecher of the Chicago Academy of Sciences collected a thousand dead birds from around the base of the Hancock, lined up the carcasses in a parking lot, and invited the media to take a look. The resulting coverage shamed the Hancock’s managers into dousing the 624 eight-foot fluorescent bulbs that light the building’s 99th floor. But other building managers may have had no idea that they could reduce the number of dead birds piling up on their roofs, ledges, and sidewalks; they may not even have noticed the seasonal pattern.

“I’ve been in the building management business for a long time, and I can tell you nobody had any idea what was going on with birds,” says Day, who heads a property management division of the Baird & Warner real estate company. In 1999, the mayor’s office asked Day, a civic volunteer, to join the influential Landscape Committee, which oversees some of the mayor’s pet projects that contribute to the greening of the city. As chair of the Nature and Wildlife Subcommittee she worked with Judy Pollock of the Audubon Society and Jerry Garden, past president of the society’s Chicago chapter. According to Day, when the problem of bird fatalities in the Loop came up, she asked, “Has anyone told this to the building managers?” None of the birders knew about the Building Owners and Managers Association, whose membership includes most of the city’s big buildings and building management firms.

Suddenly everything fell into place. With an express route to the building managers and Mayor Daley behind the plan, the subcommittee sent a fax to BOMA members explaining the migratory bird problem and its simple solutions. “These are people too,” Day says. “They’re compassionate. They just needed to be told, and nobody had known how to get to them to tell them before.”

Several buildings signed on last spring, and a few more joined last fall. Day expects even more this spring, but there’s no official registry. “We want to make this a voluntary thing,” she says. “Comply if you can.” Several of the advocates say that if even one building goes dark, a few hundred birds will survive to breed up north.

“Why not?” says Kapp of the Hancock Center. “It just seems to make sense to go along with this thing. It’s a worthy cause. Obviously the birds were migrating through here a long time before these buildings were here, so my thought is, if you can do something to help them out, what does it hurt?” He says he’s never had a tenant complain about it, and everyone who’s called to ask about it has accepted the explanation as reasonable. Some people, he thinks, may even come to expect the darkened buildings as a sign of the season, just as they look for the Hancock’s red and green lights at Christmastime.

That’s exactly what Bill Abolt, the city’s commissioner of the environment, is hoping. “People in Chicago look at our big buildings as a source of pride and connection,” he says. “I think people will start to get as excited about turning off the lights in spring and fall as they get about seeing red, white, and blue lights at the Hancock on the Fourth of July. It’s part of the celebration. And if you know why the lights are being turned off, maybe you’ll start looking for migrating birds in the trees in your backyard or along the lakefront. It makes a richer experience of city life, a better connection to nature.”

Abolt believes that Chicago is uniquely positioned among major American cities to “build that kind of green reputation that Portland [Oregon] has, plus still have that big-city muscle.” A program like Lights Out! reminds Chicagoans that they can do something to encourage wildlife in the city. “It’s good to see that when the issue is a little inconvenience versus the birds, the birds are given some weight. But the real trick will be sometime when for some reason it comes down to 100,000 jobs versus the birds….I don’t think the birds will win.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.