A Volunteer’s Perspective by Stephanie P. Dalke
I am not a morning person—at ALL. But I love birds and know that building strikes are a major but poorly understood problem, so last spring I finally took the step to volunteer for the Lights Out program. During peak migration each spring and fall, volunteers monitor routes downtown to find birds that have struck glass buildings. Early morning is best, before sidewalks have been cleaned and when stunned birds might still be rescued. Early morning is good for bird watching, too, but I rarely manage to drag myself out of bed in time and probably miss out on a lot of good birding!
I signed up for Mondays on the Chinatown route and began to mentally prepare myself for what I assumed would be a rather grueling, sad task.
I soon discovered that it was much easier to wake up at 4:30am than I expected. I just had to get my clothes and “kit” ready the night before—the kit consisting of paper bags in case we find live stunned birds, freezer bags and permanent marker for casualties, flashlight, net, and a copy of the collection permit (it is illegal to possess wild birds without a permit, FYI!). My spring monitoring partner was super nice, and the hour or so it took to walk the route passed quickly—then it was back home and off to work.
That spring was rather uneventful on our Monday route—the only bird we discovered was, tragically, a dead male Scarlet Tanager in full breeding plumage. We had been going along smoothly for weeks, and then bam! I round the corner of a building and there he was, brilliant red and impossible to miss. I have still never seen a live one in the wild—they prefer large, intact expanses of forest—and it was crazy to see one in the middle of a big city. He went off to join the other birds collected that season to be used for research and museum specimens. We did encounter live birds several times, including Common Yellowthroats and Ovenbirds, freshly arrived from a night of flying and ready to fuel up for the next trip further south.
This fall, monitoring has been much busier—and sadder. Migration is bigger in the fall because all of the young birds who were born in the spring and summer fly south for the first time This means more window strikes. Since I’m walking solo on the Saturday Chinatown route, I have to cover a bit more ground to check every spot (but I meet my 10,000-step goal before 7am, so it’s OK!).
The night before my first walk in September, a cold front came through overnight and with it, many birds. I could hear them calling overhead as I waited for my bus in the dark, and later as I walked along. I didn’t find any birds on my route, but across the street from the end of my route is a massive glass skywalk between two buildings and I couldn’t resist checking under it for victims. Sure enough, there was a dead ovenbird—still warm—directly underneath. I bagged it, hopped on the bus home, put it in the freezer (much to the delight of my husband), and went back to bed.
A couple hours later I woke up to a text from a friend—it was a photo of a dead Belted Kingfisher outside the Shaw-Howard University Metro station. I had literally just told him about Lights Out after we met up at a show the night before, and behold, here was one right outside his apartment. I modified my errand plans to first go look for the Kingfisher. Sure enough, it was still there on a grate at noon, and nearby was another dead bird (unfortunately lacking a head—dead or injured birds often provide snacks for local rats and cats). While I was collecting the birds, we spotted friends who were out on a walk—and wondering why I was bagging up a big dead bird outside a muffin shop! It turns out employees at the muffin shop have seen other dead and injured birds there before and wanted to know what to do about them.
In just these two seasons of monitoring I have spoken to many people who had no idea that glass buildings can be such a problem for birds, or that so many wild birds come through the city at all. Most people get it, though—the “tourist” birds are unfamiliar with the area and can’t see glass. This reinforces to me the need to simply raise awareness of the problem. Even if problematic commercial and government buildings can be more challenging to address, nearly everyone can go home and put decals or string on their windows and probably save a few wild birds that way.
My second-to-last walk for the fall had been boring—until I rounded a corner and saw a large bird sitting in front of a Potbelly restaurant. A quick glance through my binoculars made my heart sink—it was a Woodcock. The only other Woodcock I’ve seen was the dead one my husband found outside a grocery store a year ago. It was gorgeous—they have amazing camouflage to blend into the leaf litter they prefer. I know they are particularly vulnerable to striking windows because their eyes are located further back on their head to help them detect predators while probing the ground for worms with their long, flexible bill.
This Woodcock was still alive (at least for now), and possibly injured, so I knew I needed to capture it if possible. I crept up to it with my net but it suddenly walked into some nearby bushes. I knew there was a risk that it would fly right back into the same window if I scared it, so I tried to position myself between the bird and the window. It still managed to bonk the window once it decided I was too close, and then flew across the street. At this point I wasn’t sure if I should pursue it any further—but I couldn’t imagine it safely passing through downtown to more desirable habitat without killing itself in the process so I tried again to capture it. This time it flew harder into a window around the corner and stunned itself, so I was able to net it. I quickly finished my walk, bagged woodcock in hand, and hopped into a nearby Zipcar to take it up to City Wildlife for evaluation. They diagnosed it with an eye injury but were hopeful it would soon recover—and it was released a week later in a much better spot.
As the fall monitoring season comes to an end, I feel glad to have rescued one bird and made sure all the dead birds I found were counted. I still worry about all the other birds out there passing through the city, and can’t help but look for them when I pass a particularly glassy spot even if I’m not “on duty.” I hope that progress can be made—not only with problematic buildings in the District, but in everyone’s own backyards and with building design globally, too. But for now, I will enjoy sleeping in on Saturdays until next spring!
If you would like to learn more about our Lights Out program, click here.