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Unfriendly Photons

From dead birds to light pollution: Inside Utah's dark skies movement.


Tracy Aviary’s director of conservation, Cooper Farr, assesses a feathered fatality during a recent downtown Salt Lake City walkthrough. - PETER HOLSLIN
  • Peter Holslin
  • Tracy Aviary’s director of conservation, Cooper Farr, assesses a feathered fatality during a recent downtown Salt Lake City walkthrough.

Thursday morning, downtown Salt Lake. Dawn is just breaking through the milky night sky as Cooper Farr prepares for another grim survey of the city streets.

Walking up 100 South, she makes out the figures of two tiny bodies, lying dead in the mulch next to a mirrored high-rise.

"They're both chickadees," Farr says, shivering in the 29-degree cold as she scribbles down notes and collects the fragile, winged creatures in Ziploc bags.

Farr is the director of conservation at Tracy Aviary, and for two years, she and a team of volunteers have been collecting data on a disturbing trend in local songbird deaths. The culprit? Downtown's beaming streetlights and reflective office-building windows, which confuse the migrating birds and ultimately lead to deadly collisions.

Thus, the aviary is urging Salt Lakers to turn off their house lights between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. during the spring and fall migratory seasons. The campaign is called Lights Out Salt Lake—and it's just one of several efforts launched across Utah in recent years as part of the international "dark sky" movement, with advocates pushing to reduce light pollution and promote the natural bounty of Earth's nightscape.

As Farr scans the pavement for felled birds on a single downtown block—part of an area Tracy Aviary has identified as a hub for bird collisions—she acknowledges that it's not exactly pleasant work.

"This is maybe my least favorite project that we do, just because it's really sad to find all the birds," she sighs, her eyes trained on the grass plots and corners next to office buildings, where the feathered fallen are usually found.

According to Lucila Fernandez, the aviary's conservation outreach biologist, the downtown buildings are in the flight path of more than 30 species of songbirds that travel during the spring and fall months. Most of the birds migrate at night, but the city lights cloud the skies, making it hard for them to rely on the star system and magnetic field to guide their way. Instead they'll circle around for hours, until they either drop to their deaths out of exhaustion or take a break.

Once back in the air, they can get disrupted again as the first glimmers of daybreak arrive. Fernandez says the sun's rays will bounce off the mirrored windows, deceiving the birds into thinking that it's a clear way through—only for them to smash into the glass. Tracy Aviary began surveying 27 downtown blocks in 2017 to gauge the impact; this year, 37 birds have been found to have died as a result of these collisions.

"Now that we have two years of data, we're able to identify a couple buildings that are kind of hotspots for bird strikes, and that allows us to focus our campaign to direct efforts toward building managers and residents that live in those areas," Fernandez says. (She declined to identify the buildings where collisions happen the most.)

Property managers at three of downtown's high-rise buildings contacted by City Weekly say they haven't been approached about this issue before or considered ways to prevent the bird strikes. Not all is lost for our avian friends, however. A movement to clear the night skies has been active for years, and Utah educators and officials have been eager to come up with solutions.

Migratory bird patterns are one of the areas of interest covered by The Journal of Dark Sky Studies (JDDS), a new academic digest published by the University of Utah. Launched in August, the biannual review's inaugural issue describes the widespread use of artificial light at night as a "profound environmental challenge," impacting the natural lifeways of the animal kingdom and homo sapiens alike.

"The implications are really far-reaching," Daniel Mendoza, editor-in-chief of the JDDS, says.

A specialist in atmospheric sciences and an instructor for a proposed "dark sky studies" minor at the U, Mendoza says dark skies touch on a wide range of areas, including tourism, the environment and public health. Many of the biggest problems stem from the fact that people simply aren't thinking critically about ways to manage light production. Mendoza and other dark sky advocates argue that poorly designed street lamps and other public lighting fixtures often send light upward into the sky, disrupting flight patterns for migratory species like birds and bats while wasting energy and impeding views of the stars and planets above.

The rise of LED—aka "light-emitting diodes," known for providing a low-cost, energy-saving light source—has boosted the presence of artificial light even further. The JDDS reports that more than 80% of the world's population now lives in regions where light pollution clouds the night sky.

"If you see a light bulb, it's just a giant sphere, right? What's happening is anything that's above what's called the horizon, 50% of the light, is wasted. It's going off into space—that's not lighting anything up," Mendoza explains. "You want to see what's on the sidewalk. Maybe you want to see something on the walls, a mural or a painting or something. But the rest, what's going up, we're just sending to aliens ... That's just wasted energy."

Lawmakers and municipal officials in Utah have seemed receptive to facing the issue. During the 2018 general session, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a resolution advocating shielded public light fixtures that adhere to the standards of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), an advocacy organization based in Tucson, Ariz.

Meanwhile, rural towns including Ivins, Eagle Mountain, Torrey and Moab have all passed outdoor lighting ordinances, setting down regulations on things like the color and wattage of lights and the need for shielding to prevent "upglow" (i.e., the degree to which a light shines into the sky).

"It's such an easy fix. Contain the photons, so they stay on the ground. That's really all it is," says Ryan Andreasen, founder of the group Dark Sky Layton, who has revamped his home lighting to fit IDA standards and holds regular star-gazing parties at Antelope Island State Park.

In Salt Lake Valley, some have been sensitive about the ubiquity of urban lighting: Recently, a resident of Federal Heights called into the Huntsman Cancer Institute to complain about the hospital's newly renovated Beacon of Hope—a nighttime lighting installation designed to raise awareness about the need for cancer research. Ashlee Bright, a spokesperson at the institute, says the hospital made some lighting adjustments to reduce the glow. An architect has done multiple tests on the Beacon of Hope to understand its impact on neighbors, and the institute makes sure to run the installation at minimum power levels, Bright says.

On the chilly Thursday morning downtown, Farr finishes circling the block and then heads to work. The two chickadees are the only birds she finds today, and soon migration season will wind down for winter.

Tracy Aviary is still looking into ways to save the songbirds from disruptive lights. But as Farr puts it, everyone can pitch in.

"A lot of small things will help, but I'm happy for anything people are doing," she says. "It's very much a win-win issue."