Turning off lights in Chicago would prevent birds from fatally flying into buildings, data shows

New research released by the Field Museum shows turning off lights in downtown Chicago would help save migratory birds.

This is based on research started by the museum’s collections manager emeritus, David Willard. He now has more than 40,000 migratory birds from 150 various species stored in the Field Museum. All of them in the end crashed into McCormick Place.

Willard admits it makes him sad because, "some of these birds are birds that have spent the winter in Peru and fly all that way to here and only to encounter a glass window that ends their life."

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Willard started the collection in 1978 as a beginner ornithologist for the Field, when he found his first dead birds surrounding the large, lakeside building that is not far from the museum.

Now, his decades of carefully kept data has led to new research that scientists say has the strongest proof yet that migrating birds are attracted to building lights.

"If you turn lights out on a given building that is a bird killing building, you then reduce those numbers rather dramatically. The bottom line of the whole paper is simply that the more lights that any given building can turn off at night, the safer it's going to be for birds," Willard said.

Chicago is notoriously dangerous for migrating birds. Research found that switching off lights on certain heavy migration days in Spring and Fall would help. In addition, turning off half the lights at McCormick Place could reduce bird deaths by 59 percent.

"It's never going to be zero, but as creative humans, there's no reason that we can't be adapting, in ways that reduce this," Willard said.

He says the death count dropped when McCormick Place closed during the pandemic from around 1,000 in a normal spring to about 40 total.

The pandemic also led to a backlog of work, with a freezer full of new specimens to be added to the collection for future research.