Earth Observatory images by Robert Simmon and Jesse Allen (Photo: NASA, 2012 )

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Cathy Webb loves birds. In fact, she was a longtime member of the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society when she agreed to serve on the board of DarkSky Missouri this year.

DarkSky International is a nonprofit devoted to reducing light pollution, which can harm wildlife and ecosystems as well as humans and the environment in general. 

Webb had also worked with Lights Out Heartland, an organization that advocates for turning off outdoor lights during birds’ spring and fall migrations, yet when she went home to her Christian County farm, she realized that she and her husband, Shane, needed to make a few changes themselves. 

They got rid of a dusk-to-dawn light, removed solar lights that attracted insects, and bought new bulbs with warmer Kelvin ratings.

“As an advocate, I thought, ‘Well, I’d better walk the talk,” Cathy Webb said. 

This Friday, April 19, in a presentation to kick off Earth Week at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, Webb will tell others how to dim the lights around their own homes — and how doing so can help protect birds as they migrate north for the summer. 

Want to go? 

  • What: Effects of Artificial Light on Birds, a free presentation by DarkSky Missouri’s Cathy Webb. 
  • Where: Springfield Conservation Nature Center, 4601 S. Nature Way. 
  • When: Friday, April 19, 10-11 a.m. 
  • The Nature Center is also offering a free virtual presentation from 2-3 p.m. on April 19: Effects of Artificial Light on Wildlife. Email registration is required.

How light pollution endangers birds  

Light pollution is real: DarkSky International estimates that 2 percent of the night sky is lost each year to the glow from artificial lights, although at least one study estimates that loss to be as high as 9 percent, Webb said.

“It’s getting worse,” she said.

Streetlights, low-cost LED lighting in new subdivisions, and even solar lights contribute to the loss of the night sky, especially in metropolitan areas, Webb said.

That’s not without consequences, especially to birds — and especially as they make their journey now along the Mississippi River flyway to their nesting grounds.

“We are at the height of spring migration,” Webb said. “Right now, there’s approximately 350 species of birds that are long-distance migrators in the United States and North America.” Of those, she said, 80 percent migrate at night.

Cathy Webb during a birdwatching trip in March 2024 in Colombia, South America. Webb is an advocate urging people to dim the lights around their own homes — and how doing so can help protect birds as they migrate north for the summer. (Photo by Jill Hays)

 On her own property, Webb has recently seen and heard migratory Northern parula warblers, white-eyed vireos and yellow-throated warblers, to name a few. On any given day during a migration season, she goes to the real-time BirdCast website to see whether many birds will be passing through her area. 

Because birds travel by night, relying on the Earth’s magnetic field and the moon and stars to navigate their route, artificial lights can distract and confuse them in their quest to avoid predators and forage for food, Webb said.

“They go off their normal course where their food sources are,” Webb said. “They circle buildings. They use food stores, and they get weakened and exhausted. Then, they’re vulnerable to window strikes, vehicles and predators.” 

Full view of the Earth Observatory images by Robert Simmon and Jesse Allen. (Photo: NASA, 2012 )

Some 500 million to 1 billion birds die each year due to window strikes alone, she said.

DarkSky works with municipalities interested in adopting “more dark sky-friendly practices,” Webb said, since heavily populated metro areas contribute to most light pollution, thereby putting birds in peril. At the Nature Center, for example, the parking lot boasts DarkSky-approved lighting, she said. 

How people can keep birds safe 

Still, individuals can do a lot to help keep birds safe as they migrate.

First, Webb said, “Assess your lights at your house, inside and out.”

Put outdoor lights, if needed, on sensors or timers, she suggested, and add shields to them to direct light to the ground.

“You can have a safe home but not have it lit up as much,” Webb said.

Close windows and blinds, and move lamps away from windows, too. At night, lights from windows attract birds, steering them away from food sources.

Since “blue lights” are the most harmful to wildlife, replace bulbs of a higher Kelvin rating with “warmer” lights at or below 3,000 Kelvins, Webb said.

Even the reflective glass of windows poses a danger. Because birds don’t see the glass, Webb said, they crash into windows, thinking they’re headed for a safe place.

On Friday, April 19, she’ll describe ways to break up that reflection, from drawing patterns on windows with soap to buying ultraviolet-coated stickers or tape. Birds see UV light, Webb said, so coated stickers or tape work “like neon signs saying, basically, this is not a place to go into.”

Webb found UV-coated Feather Friendly tape at a local farm and home store in Ozark, yet she also suggested looking for similar stickers and tape at specialty stores like Wild Birds Unlimited, 3849 S. Campbell Ave., or on Amazon.

During her presentation, Webb will also point to DarkSky’s five principles for responsible outdoor lighting, which offer guidance on whether artificial lights are useful, targeted, at a low level, controlled (by timers or motion detectors) and of a warm color instead of blue. 

It’s all about reducing the sky glow that affects humans as well as birds, said Webb, who recently represented DarkSky Missouri during the April 8 eclipse in Van Buren, where the sky is darker than it is in the Springfield area.

“It was beautiful,” she said. “It brings you closer to the universe and how we all fit together in it.” 

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Susan Atteberry Smith

Susan Atteberry Smith is a Dallas County native, a former college writing instructor and a former Springfield News-Leader reporter. Smith writes freelance pieces for several publications, including Missouri Life Magazine, Biz 417 and Missouri State University alumni publications. More by Susan Atteberry Smith