The otherwise beautiful 9/11 tribute lights in New York are endangering over 160,000 birds each year, according to study.
Every year, something happens during September 11 in New York City, and we're not talking about the anniversary of one of the most tragic days in American history. We're talking about something far more ancient: a ritual that takes hundreds of thousands of birds to the vicinity of the city as they migrate through the region. Unfortunately, many don't survive the trip. They get drawn into a trap of light instead.
As these birds fly across the area annually, the City of New York lights two colossal beams over Lower Manhattan to commemorate the victims of the September 11 attacks. These are beautiful displays of light that honor something important—but they are causing tens of thousands of further deaths to do so, according to the New York City Audubon.
A deadly trap
Here's what happens. When the city turns on the lights, thousands of birds suddenly get confused because the beams interfere with their regular visual cues. So they can't navigate, and are drawn to the light instead.
This causes all these birds to bundle together inside the beams, circling them for hours. Many of them end up flying into building windows, while others get too tired to go on or simply starve to death. So, beautiful though the scene might seem to the unaware onlooker (think of all these birds graciously dancing inside two great beams of light), the whole thing is actually an environmental tragedy.
Some alarming figures
According to one study conducted over 8 years, the lights affect the migration of over 1 million birds, endangering at least 160,000 individual avian lives each year. Add that to the fact that 600 million birds die annually across the country from collisions with buildings—especially those with reflective windows. 230,000 of those deaths occur in New York City alone, N.Y.C. Audubon reports.
The National Audubon Society gives even more dire news, indicating that half of all North American bird species are at risk of extinction because of the reduction of their habitats due to human activity and climate change. 145 of these live or migrate through New York.
Fortunately, some measures have been taken. Every year when the lights go up, volunteers gather to observe and count the birds that congregate around them. When there are more than 1,000 birds visible inside the light beams, they get turned off for at least 20 minutes to allow them to fly away safely.
This doesn't prevent the initial disruption of the birds' flight path, however. Important though the lights are to commemorate the 9/11 victims, perhaps we should find another way that doesn't put the lives of other species at risk in the first place.
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