Flip the Switch to Save the Dark!

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                        To Know the Dark
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
                                                  —Wendell Berry

 

If you live in or near a city, chances are you don’t see many twinkling little stars at night because light pollution — the fastest growing form of human-caused pollution — is making the night sky glow brighter each year. In fact, night skies across roughly half of the U.S. are polluted by artificial light. A fairly recent study from the University of Exeter found that observable light emissions increased globally by at least 49 percent from 1992 to 2017. But that figure only includes light visible via satellites, and scientists estimate the actual increase may be much higher — as much as 270 to 400 percent, depending on  the region.

Excessive, poorly designed lighting that spills skyward changes the predictable day/night cycle that life evolved in. Even tucked into bed, our glaring human footprint trespasses into the nocturnal world to mess up biological rhythms and health, consume and waste energy, steal the beauty and wonder of the nighttime sky, contribute to climate change, and disrupt beings within complex ecosystems. 

As I wrote in a Portland Monthly article a few years ago, myriad wildlife species that work the dusk and dawn or graveyard shifts depend on uninterrupted darkness to provide exquisitely timed cues that direct communication, reproduction, protection, sleep, foraging behavior, and orientation. For long-distance migratory birds who travel at night during spring and fall using celestial navigation, artificial light can disrupt or kill them in several ways. The timing of migration (when wildlife leave their summer or winter grounds) is controlled by several factors, one of which is photoperiod (the duration of light and dark), a predicable indicator of time of year. When the haze of artificial lighting conceals this cue, birds may leave too early or too late, which may cause them to miss optimal nesting conditions. And when lured into a maze of city lights, migrants become confused and disoriented and often collide with unnecessarily illuminated buildings, or drop from exhaustion. It’s estimated that as much as a billion birds are killed this way each year in North America, but it’s not only birds that are affected.

Nocturnal moth (Cyclophora pendulinaria), awaiting the dark.

All animals—reptiles (including sea turtles), amphibians, mammals (including humans)—are negatively impacted. Arthropods, like nocturnal moths — their fate seamlessly interconnected with other ecosystem members — perish rather than pollinating, breeding, and supplying food for birds. And the seasonal cycle of plants, including trees — particularly those with the misfortune of being planted beneath streetlights or in the path of landscape lighting — is threatened. Researchers believe that early bud break caused by incessant light will have a cascade effect on other organisms whose life cycles work in tandem with such plants, as well as the plants themselves. A recent study suggests that intensified light at night may have serious far-reaching consequences in disruption of key ecosystem functions and services.

Plants need to “sleep” in darkness, just as we do, and sleep deprivation is as harmful to trees as it is to animals. Trees that are sensitive to day length tend to be more affected by artificial light, and changes to day length can cause disruptions in flowering patterns, growth of larger leaves (which can cause them to be more susceptible to air pollution or water stress), and even prevent trees — particularly young ones — from entering dormancy in autumn. Longer growing seasons are not a good thing! Tree species most affected by artificial light include dogwood, maple, birch, aspen and cottonwood.

The bright side
Although nights are getting brighter each year since continual development and sprawl amplify light pollution
, there is a bright side: It’s reversible. Organizations such as the International Dark-Sky Association and many smaller groups, like Audubon of Portland’s Lights Out campaign, are working to preserve and protect the night skies, and there are Dark Sky communities, parks, and preserves. While it will take urban planners, designers of fixtures and buildings, and elected local officials to create standards for outdoor lighting that minimizes light pollution, glare and trespass overall, those of us who are homeowners can each do our part—and it takes very little effort. 

Hello darkness, my old friend
→ Switch it off:
Turn off unnecessary outdoor lights or, better yet, install motion-sensors that are designed to turn on only when needed and turn off after a short period of time.
→ Shield it: Use fixtures that aim light downward and that are shielded to prevent glare and “trespass” on habitat and neighbors. Those that have a solid cap above the bulb that prevents light from traveling skyward are best; you can also buy shades to fit existing fixtures. Lowering fixtures sometimes can also help.
→ Warm it up: Select warm-colored LEDs (under a 3,000 Kelvin rating) that supply only the amount of light needed. Those that emit short cool or blue wavelengths are brighter, scatter light more, and are worse for wildlife.
→ Remember indoor lights: Close draperies, especially during peak migration seasons (April through June and August through November) to stop rays from straying outdoors.
→ Request shields: Shields on streetlights may be possible. Inquire with your local department of transportation.
→ Buck the trend of landscape lighting: Most “decorative” outdoor lighting is pointless, detrimental to wildlife and plants, and wasteful, particularly fixtures that point light upwards and sideways.
→ Close all blinds, shades and/or shutters to reduce nighttime light that attracts and confuses wildlife.

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Safety concerns?
Most home burglaries occur in broad daylight, not in the middle of the night, and excessive lighting does not lessen crime. _MG_0166In fact, studies show that bright lights can make victims and property easier to see, as well as create much greater contrast and excessive glare, which increases the deep shadows that may actually increase crime and vandalism and make it more difficult to see potential intruders on your property. To improve security, use motion sensors that don’t give criminals a leg up. 

 

 

© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

Updated 02/2024

Ten New Year’s Resolutions For Your Eco-Garden

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Conjuring up some New Year’s resolutions? Don’t forget about your yard and the ecosystem of which we are a part. Promise to do something positive in your yard this coming year to help dwindling wild species whose habitats have been—and continue to be—ravaged.

You certainly don’t need to replace every plant in your yard or eliminate all of your lawn to give back to nature, although the more the better. And you don’t need to do everything all at once—baby steps are fine! In fact, incremental change is usually best, since wild species using existing plants and other elements might be harmed by a drastic, rapid change. If you don’t have a yard, think about volunteering with an organization that’s working on a restoration project—it can be satisfying and enjoyable.

Here are ten resolutions I recommend to help make your yard more humane and functional in the coming year. Some are very easy, some not quite so much. Choose one, two, or all! They are not listed in any particular order because each one is important.

Add some clean water. Birds, insects, mammals, amphibians—all creatures—need water year round to survive. Even just a shallow bird bath can help, but some maintenance is a good thing: Change the water every few Bird bath robin babydays, give it a good scrubbing every week or two, and keep it out of reach of marauding cats and dogs. Plates or shallow bowls filled with clean pebbles or gravel and water will provide for insects; butterflies will also appreciate mud puddles which they use to obtain moisture and nutrients essential for breeding. Artificial ponds should be shallow on one side and have gradually sloping sides so tiny animals can get out easily. More tips here.

Let natural systems flourish and harmonize by minimizing “clean-ups” and maintenance. Yes, this one lets you work less! Allow fallen leaves to stay on the soil to create cover for overwintering insects like bumblebees and butterflies as well as food for birds, raking or sweeping them only off areas that need to be clear (like sidewalks, driveways, or lawn). Leave dead wood such as snags (dead or dying trees that won’t crash on someone’s head) and “downed wood” —fallen branches, twigs, and bark—which is absolutely essential wildlife habitat that will protect and nurture soil, too. Create brush piles or rock piles to help provide cover and nest sites for birds pilesand other small creatures. Leave seed heads and flower stalks on perennials until spring is well under way to provide food, cover, and habitat. If/when you eventually cut them back, leave them on the ground for a month or longer in case they contain native bee larvae or other overwintering insects waiting for the chance to live out their lives.

Get rid of invasive plants that compete with natives. Depending on the plant species, this can be an easy job or one likely to give you headaches, backaches, and an urge to scream. It can take a few days or a few years. But once your task is accomplished, I guarantee that you will feel an extreme sense of satisfaction. And there will be more room to plant lovely, functional plants! If you have several invasive species in your yard, determine which may be the most invasive and start with that. Nonnatives that produce berries, like English holly trees, are particularly problematic because they spread into nearby natural areas by birds, but also via vegetative reproduction. English ivy also produces berry-like fruit and spreads by rooting on the soil surface and on tree trunks—at the very least, periodically cut it back at the base of trunks to prevent it from harming trees. There are numerous introduced plants that push out native species, so check with city, county, and/or state agencies to find lists and descriptions of invasive plants in your area; the USDA also offers information. My book offers some tips for removing invasive plants, as does Green Seattle Partnership and this post.

Remove lawn. Lawn for the sake of lawn is not beneficial and is awfully wasteful. When deciding which part(s) of your lawn will receive walking papers, start by choosing areas that you never or rarely use. Often this is the front yard. If you’re not ready to go all the way and remove a large area of turf, consider at least removing lawn under trees and in areas that are difficult to mow, such as slopes. Lawn can also be minimized by enlarging existing beds and adding ecologically beneficial native plants. The gentlest way to remove lawn is to simply cover it with about 6 sheets of overlapping newspaper (or cardboard) on a non-IMG_0403 sRGBwindy day. Dampen it, poke a some small holes, then top it with 4 or 5 inches of weed-free compost (leaf compost is good) and fallen leaves over that. Leave it to decompose for at least several months (until grass roots have died) before planting. Removing lawn via a sod cutter or spade can damage tree/shrub roots.

Grow native plants that are indigenous to your area. For this I suggest you consult a regional native gardening book like my book (if you live in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades). Choose species (preferably “true species,” not cultivars) that are native to your area and that will flourish in your site’s soil, light, and moisture conditions. Grow them with other members the same plant community to provide the most benefit.

Provide for all life stages of pollinators. Many pollinating insects, including native bees and butterflies, will have gone through several stages by the time they reach adulthood and their needs differ greatly. So, in addition to providing water and growing groups of sequentially-flowering plants (preferably native to your area) that supply pollen and nectar from early spring through fall, provide the “host plants” needed for egg laying and for the feeding of larvae (in the case of butterflies and moths: caterpillars). For insects that undergo a complete metamorphosis, protect habitat for pupa (chrysalis). The latter mainly involves simply leaving fallen leaves and other organic matter on the soil, delaying any pruning of host plants until late spring, and not using leaf blowers, which eliminate the habitat of creatures needing a place to wait out the winter, such as chrysalis held in place on a twig by a fragile silken thread.

Don’t use pesticides or poisons. Synthetic pesticides should be avoided at all costs, but even so-called organic controls can be deadly and indiscriminate, especially if used improperly. If a pest if causing enough damage in your Aphid eaterkitchen garden to warrant a control, consider hand removal, barriers and screens, companion plants, or simply sprays of water from the hose. Allow a natural balance by welcoming natural pest control such as birds (see bushtit devouring aphids, right) and predatory insects. More than two billion pounds of pesticides are sold each year in the U.S, which severely threaten pollinators — without whom we can’t produce food — and damage water and soil quality. 

Protect birds from reflective glass. Up to a billion birds are killed or injured by colliding with buildings in North America each year. Though skyscrapers kill countless birds, large structures four stories or less in rural locales are responsible for the most bird deaths, according to a 2017 study. Many of those strikes can be prevented and here are some ways to help.

Keep Kitty indoors. Domesticated cats kill millions of birds each year, but it’s not their fault they’re outside. Whenever possible, keep your little predators indoors for their safety as well to protect little wild creatures. To prevent boredom and health issues: Add levels, especially around windows, widen windowsills with tables of appropriate height, or add window boxes. If you’re more ambitious, build a catio! They come in all sizes, shapes and price ranges and provide kitty with a safe outdoor experience.      

Turn on the dark. Look out your windows at night and chances are—if you live in an urban area—you won’t see the twinkle-twinkle of little stars because light pollution (any adverse effect of artificial light) is making the night sky glow brighter each year. Its most obvious effects are on migratory songbirds lured into cities where they collide with unnecessarily illuminated buildings, killing more than 100 million of them each year in North America. But lit up low-rise structures in rural locales also distract and have been found to pose greater danger than similarly-sized urban buildings, with what researchers call “the large scale beacon effect.” And for nocturnal animals, artificial light may be the most extreme change forced upon them. You can help by minimizing artificial lighting migration seasons, and anytime to prevent moths from exhausting themselves to death, to keep bats in the dark, and diurnal animals asleep. Choose fixtures that shine light downwards, not to the side or upwards, and use motion-sensors so that lights go on only when necessary. If you worry about crime, studies show that outdoor lighting does not decrease crime and may even exacerbate it; most residential crime occurs during daylight hours. In addition, cover windows with shades or draperies at night to cut down on light escaping your house. More info.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Killer Windows: How to Help Stop Bird Collisions

Varied thrush


When I read a recent post
from my local wildlife rehab center announcing that they’ve been caring for four varied thrushes in their facility—all injured by window collisions—it got me thinking. This winter I’ve seen just one of these gorgeous birds in our yard. Might others have been victims of window collisions? I certainly hope not, but the rehab center reportedly takes in several hundred window victims each year, and it’s not hard to imagine that countless others die out of sight, often slowly and painfully. Certain species—such as thrushes, cedar waxwings, warblers and woodpeckers—are more likely to fly into reflective glass, and migratory species are also at high risk, as well as birds like herons and owls. According to the Bird Alliance of Oregon, “Whether the species is rare or common, young or old, resident or migratory, most birds are at risk of collision-related injury or death.”

Studies conclude that the more glass on a structure, the greater the chance of mortality, and windows that reflect surrounding vegetation create three times more risk than those that do not (Kummer et al. 2016b). And since birds are attracted to native plants, the risk increases.

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A billion deaths a year
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not unusual for birds to collide with windows. In fact, ornithologists say that bird fatality by collision with manmade structures is second only to habitat loss that’s brought on by agriculture, industrial forestry, urban development, invasive species, and climate change. The number of deaths due to window strikes is appalling: An estimated one billion birds die each year from encounters with reflective surfaces in North America! Birds who don’t die quickly from injury may suffer slow, painful deaths or become easy prey for predators. Many bird species, such as the elusive varied thrush, are already in steep decline, and deaths by collision only exacerbate the problem. And it’s getting worse—as urban areas grow, the quantity and size of obstacles increase and natural habitats degrade. Stopover habitat for migratory birds is getting smaller and smaller and more fragmented as humans encroach on what once was grassland, wetland, shoreline, and the like.

Large urban buildings may be the most notorious killers, but any unobstructed, reflective window can kill and large rural structures are the most problematic: A study in Biological Conservation confirmed that rural buildings are worse than urban skyscrapers because they happen to be right where birds forage. The authors surveyed 40 college campuses across the continent and discovered that sites with abundant shrubs and trees in a 160-foot radius were the deadliest. Furthermore, since many birds travel along undeveloped migration routes, well lit towns and office parks they come across have a greater chance of distracting them. There is also speculation that there may be an innate behavioral difference among rural and city bird populations, with urban birds possibly having learned to avoid windows and other structures following a few non-fatal crashes. Rural birds would lack that training, which could make them more vulnerable. This would explain why thrushes and woodpeckers would be some of the most vulnerable species, since they adapted to forest environments.

What they see
Birds don’t see window glass and shiny or mirrored office buildings like we do. They see a reflection of trees, shrubs, and sky that appears to be a clear path, and consequently fly into it. tree reflection in windowMoreover, some fruit-eating species may get intoxicated by eating fermented berries and are more likely to hit windows while flying “drunk.”

Or, birds may see through clear glass (such as two corner windows perpendicular to each other, a solarium, or a bus shelter) and are deceived into flying right through as they try to get to vegetative cover that they see beyond the glass. Reportedly, this can also happen if indoor plants are situated right next to windows.

Some species (such as robins and bushtits) see their reflection during breeding season, view it as an intruder to their territory, and actually attack the glass—I’ve seen it happen. This territorial behavior can be intense, but they usually aren’t seriously injured (unlike the other situations). These territorial strikes can also happen at car windows.

How you can help
Because windows are everywhere, it’s easy to think that the problem is too overwhelming to do anything about. But any bird-friendly change you make to your property’s windows can help. Especially if your good intentions attract birds to your yard—with feeders and/or native plants—or you’ve noticed birds hitting your windows, it ought to be compulsory.

Bird strikes often follow a pattern, with the same windows repeatedly struck. If you have a lot of windows, take some time to identify which windows are problematic, paying attention to bird attractants like food, water, and cover. Look at your windows from a bird’s point of view. 

Most of the following remedies work either by blocking reflective glass or making it visible to birds by giving them visual cues. Sheer curtains and blinds closed part way may help cut down on reflection, but they don’t fully eliminate it, so don’t rely on interior remedies. Silhouettes placed on the inside of windows do not work because birds still see the reflection.

DIY suggestions:
♦  Locate all bird feeders and bird baths at least 30 feet from windows, a distance that allows birds to see that windows are part of a house. Or, keep them very close—within 2 feet—to reduce the chance of high impact collisions. If that doesn’t help, either add additional protections or remove the feeders or baths altogether.
♦  If any of your windows have a clear view through your house to another window, create an obstruction (such as curtains) that blocks what may appear to birds to be a flight path.
♦  Keep taut window screens on year round if you have them, or consider adding them. Screens block reflections considerably and soften any impact. Keeping your windows dirty may also help!
♦ Make your own “zen wind curtains,” which are practical and effective and don’t look the least bit odd.
♦ Apply patterns (a few inches apart) with soap on the outside of windows—use stencils found at craft stores, or make your own. The patterns can be wiped off and redone when necessary. They are very inexpensive but may may be impractical for windows that receive rain or are hard to reach.
♦ For birds who fight with their reflection, simply hang a cloth or apply some masking tape to the area for a few days to break the bird of the habit.
♦ Be sure that blinds, shades and/or shutters are in place and closed to reduce nighttime light that attracts and confuses birds.

Products for purchase:
♦ Decals that reflect ultra-violet wavelengths of light—which birds can see but we can’t—are applied to the outside of windows. Follow manufacturers instructions for adequate coverage (aim for 80%), generally a few inches apart. Some examples include Window Alert (pictured) and BirdTape,  which provide a stoplight for birds. In direct sunlight, decals will need to be replaced more often than in shade, so be sure to keep track of when you put them up. If you have a lot of windows to cover, BirdTape is more economical and may last longer. UV decals placed on outside of window
♦ Films like CollidEscape, that appear opaque to birds but transparent to you, are applied to the outside of windows.
♦ Feather Friendly adhesive dots are applied on the exterior of windows in a “frit” pattern.
♦ External awnings or sun shades help minimize both reflection and transparency.

Architectural solutions:
Planning on remodeling or building a new home? Are you an architect or developer? The Resource Guide for Bird-Friendly Building Design is a comprehensive publication that offers excellent info and workable solutions for reducing collisions in commercial areas as well as residential. Also check out the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Friendly Building Design and the City of Toronto’s Bird-Friendly Best Practices: Glass. All are well worth a read.

Other important recommendations:
At night, turn off lights in office buildings (all levels), especially during spring and fall migrations. At home, pull your shades or draw draperies, and install motion censors on outdoor lighting, rather than leaving lights on at night. All of this prevents disorientation of migratory birds traveling at night and cuts down on other negative effects of artificial light pollution.


If you find a bird on the ground near a window: Slowly and gently cover and catch the bird with a lightweight, soft cloth and carefully place it in a small box (such as a shoebox) that has air holes and is lined with a soft cloth or paper towels rolled into a doughnut shape to keep the bird upright. Handle the bird as little as possible and keep the box securely closed. Do not give food or water. Place the box in a quiet, dark, and pleasantly warm place, away from other animals, noise, and children. If the bird has an obvious injury like a cracked bill or dangling wing, transport it immediately (in the darkened box ) to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator—broken bones need attention quickly. If there are no obvious injuries, quietly check on the bird several times over one to two hours—outside and away from human activity and buildings in case the bird can fly—but don’t touch it. If the bird develops swollen eyes or becomes unresponsive during the hour, quickly transport it to a wildlife rehabilitator. If the bird seems alert and can stand on its own, place the box in a quiet spot and open it. Move away, remain still and out of sight, and wait. If s/he doesn’t fly away within 5 or 10 minutes, carefully and quietly take the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator. Remember that, other than transporting a bird to a rehabilitator, it is illegal to handle migratory birds without a license.


 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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