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Lighting changes reduce communication tower threat to birds

communication tower
White-throated Sparrow is among many bird species at risk of colliding with communication towers. Photo by Mircea Costina/Shutterstock

Every year in North America, approximately 7 million migratory birds collide with tall communication towers and die. Most of these are night-flying long-distance migrants that crash into the towers after being attracted to and disoriented by their steady-burning red lights. The annual death toll includes an estimated 6.6 million birds in the United States and at least 220,000 in Canada. These include familiar backyard species such as the White-throated Sparrow; birds of rural and forested areas, including American Woodcock; and many Neotropical migrants such as the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Blackpoll Warbler. Species of great conservation concern are impacted, including Black Rail, Bell’s Vireo, Golden-winged Warbler, and McCown’s Longspur.

Luckily, awareness of this problem has grown, and change has begun. Simply turning off the steady-burning lights can reduce a tower’s rate of bird mortality by as much as 70 percent while also saving the tower operators money. Over the past two years, thousands of U.S. communication-tower operators have updated their lighting systems by turning off steady-burning (L-810) side-marker lights that attract birds. (Flashing lights remain atop these towers, ensuring aviation safety.) Since 2016, more than 2,700 of about 13,900 tall towers in the United States have made this change, stemming from December 2015 guidelines by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) pertaining to towers over 350 feet in height and their impact on aviation safety and birdlife.

The FAA and FCC have created a simple process for tower operators to request and receive official permission to adjust their current lighting systems, and operators are now increasingly taking these steps to reduce electricity and other tower operating costs, as well as to protect migratory birds. Collectively, these efforts to turn off steady-burning lights mean that hundreds of thousands of migratory birds are now being saved each year.

American Bird Conservancy continues to encourage U.S. tower operators to embrace lighting adjustments on the remaining 11,228 towers that have yet to make the change. More information is available on our website.

A version of this article was published in the November/December 2019 issue of BirdWatching. 

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American Bird Conservancy

American Bird Conservancy

American Bird Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. It contributes the “Eye on Conservation” column in each issue of BirdWatching.

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