Birds hanging out near an airport in Seattle, Washington. Flickr/Ingrid Taylar

In the battle of pilot warning lights and birds, the Federal Aviation Administration just handed one to our feathered friends.

Flashing lights can be the difference between life and death for bicyclists, for kids getting off school buses, for first responders racing to the site of an crash—so why not the Pied-billed Grebe? Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration continued implementation of a new regulation that will change the steady, red lights that warn aircraft pilots of nearby radio, television, and telephone towers to blinking red ones. Researchers say birds are much less attracted to the flashing illumination—and that the change could save about 7 million avian lives a year.

Of course, even small-seeming federal changes don’t come easy. Groups like the American Bird Conservancy have been calling for lighting shifts since at least the late 1990s, citing estimates that 2 to 4 million songbirds die in collisions with communication towers each year. (A 2012 study put the death toll for American and Canadian birds much higher—at about 6.8 million birds annually.) In 2003, environmental organizations filed suit against the Federal Communications Commission to force them to the study the phenomenon, a case they eventually won.

Then came research: In 2005, federal researchers led by Joelle Gehring, then a conservationist with Central Michigan University, observed Michigan communications towers during peak songbird migration season and suggested bird fatalities would dive by 50 to 71 percent should the towers remove “non-flashing/steady-burning red lights.”

The Sutro Tower, San Francisco’s iconic (and potentially bird-killing) radio and television antenna tower. (Wikimedia Commons/Drflet)

Under pressure from wildlife groups, FAA researchers conducted another study in 2012. Their write-up told a sad tale:

In most instances, the birds will use bright, prominent lights that they can see in the distance as reference points, and fly to them. Unfortunately, the bright, prominent lights they select are often obstruction lights. Small migratory songbirds can become disoriented once they reach an obstruction equipped with these lights, and are unable to determine in which direction to fly to their next destination. As a result, the birds tend to continue to fly around the obstruction in a state of confusion and, in some cases, fly right into the obstruction guy wires. They may also become so exhausted from flying around the tower that they fall to the ground.

Though scientists are still not quite certain why flashing lights don’t attract the same kind of crazy bird activity, the federal researchers recommended the government officially avoid the treacherous lighting pattern. By December 2015, the FAA had released official instructions to switch all new towers to the new, non-bird-destroying lighting scheme. The operators of older towers will have until mid-September 2016 to make the shift.

Birds thanking their lucky (flashing) stars this year include 13 threatened species, according to Audubon, the conservation group. There’s the aforementioned Pied-billed Grebes, but also Yellow Rails, Swainson’s Warblers, and Prairie Warblers. An estimated 2 percent of each of these species are killed each year by collisions with communications towers.

Glory to the Pied-billed Grebe. (Flickr/Mike Bair)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Smoke from the fires hangs over Brazil.
    Environment

    Why the Amazon Is on Fire

    The rash of wildfires now consuming the Amazon rainforest can be blamed on a host of human factors, from climate change to deforestation to Brazilian politics.

  2. An aerial photo of downtown Miami.
    Life

    The Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Aren’t What You Think

    Looking at the population and job growth of large cities proper, rather than their metro areas, uncovers some surprises.

  3. a map of London Uber driver James Farrar's trip data.
    Transportation

    For Ride-Hailing Drivers, Data Is Power

    Uber drivers in Europe and the U.S. are fighting for access to their personal data. Whoever wins the lawsuit could get to reframe the terms of the gig economy.

  4. Graduates react near the end of commencement exercises at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, U.S.
    Life

    Where Do College Grads Live? The Top and Bottom U.S. Cities

    Even though superstar hubs top the list of the most educated cities, other cities are growing their share at a much faster rate.

  5. Warren Logan
    Transportation

    A City Planner Makes a Case for Rethinking Public Consultation

    Warren Logan, a Bay Area transportation planner, has new ideas about how to truly engage diverse communities in city planning. Hint: It starts with listening.

×