YGA Journal | Article

World Migratory Bird Day

Night Light Mayhem: How Light Pollution Confuses Our Feathered Friends

Learn about the threats faced by migratory birds when their migration paths are disrupted by light pollution and what we can do to play our part in restoring their journey.


Published May 13, 2023

Have you ever gazed up at the night sky, trying to catch a glimpse of the stars, only to see the glow of streetlights and cityscapes? That’s light pollution, and it’s not just affecting your stargazing experience. It’s also causing problems for our feathered friends – migratory birds.

Imagine yourself on a long road trip, navigating by the stars, when suddenly, bright billboards and city lights blind you, making it impossible to see your guiding stars. That’s precisely what’s happening to millions of migratory birds every year.

Migratory birds have an incredible sense of direction, relying on various cues from their environment, such as the Earth’s magnetic field, stars, and even the position of the sun, to guide their long-distance journeys. However, as more and more artificial lights illuminate the night sky, these natural navigators are finding it increasingly challenging to stay on course.

Why is light pollution a problem for migratory birds? Here are some of the significant impacts:

1. Disorientation and Confusion
As migratory birds travel thousands of miles, they rely on natural cues to find their way. Bright artificial lights disrupt these cues, causing birds to become disoriented and confused. Drawn to these lights like moths to a flame, birds can veer off course, sometimes by hundreds of miles. This disorientation can lead to exhaustion as they desperately search for their bearings. Furthermore, the birds may collide with buildings, communication towers, or other human-made structures, leading to injury or death.
2. Altered Behavior
Light pollution doesn’t just disorient migratory birds; it can also change their behavior. For instance, some species begin singing earlier in the morning when exposed to artificial light. This can disrupt their natural sleep patterns, leading to increased stress and reduced overall health. Additionally, some birds may stop migrating altogether, choosing to stay in brightly lit areas where they perceive a lower risk of predation. However, this decision can have unintended consequences, disrupting their breeding and feeding patterns and leading to population declines.

3. Impacts on Breeding and Feeding

As light pollution alters the behavior of migratory birds, it can also have cascading effects on their breeding and feeding habits. Birds that begin singing earlier due to artificial light may experience reduced reproductive success, as their altered schedules affect their ability to find mates or adequately care for their offspring. Furthermore, light pollution can lead to changes in insect abundance and distribution, indirectly impacting the food availability for insectivorous birds.

4. Increased Vulnerability to Predators

Artificial lights can also make migratory birds more vulnerable to predation. Brightly lit areas provide an ideal hunting ground for predators such as owls and cats, leading to increased predation rates on disoriented and confused birds (14). As the birds expend extra energy trying to avoid predators or recover from the disorientation caused by light pollution, their overall fitness and ability to complete their migration may be compromised.

Fortunately, there are steps we can take to help protect our migratory birds from the harmful effects of light pollution. One simple solution is to switch off or dim unnecessary outdoor lighting, especially during peak migration seasons. Another is to use shielded or directed lights that focus illumination downwards, reducing the amount of light that reaches the sky.

You can also support organizations dedicated to addressing light pollution and bird conservation, such as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), the National Audubon Society, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. These organizations work tirelessly to raise awareness, promote research, and develop solutions to protect birds and their habitats from the harmful effects of artificial lighting. Get involved by volunteering, donating, or participating in their citizen science projects and campaigns.

In conclusion, light pollution is much more than an inconvenience for stargazing enthusiasts; it has severe and far-reaching consequences for our feathered friends. From disorientation and confusion to altered behavior and increased vulnerability to predators, migratory birds face a multitude of challenges as they traverse the illuminated skies. As the next generation of eco-warriors, you have the power to make a difference in the lives of these magnificent travelers. Together, we can help protect migratory birds by taking action to reduce light pollution in our communities. Start by switching off unnecessary outdoor lights during peak migration seasons, and encourage your family and friends to do the same. Advocate for the use of shielded, directed, or motion-sensor lighting in your neighborhood, and raise awareness about the dangers of light pollution at school and in local clubs.

By raising our voices and taking action, we can ensure that the skies remain a safe passage for migratory birds, allowing them to continue their incredible journeys for generations to come. So let’s get involved, spread the word, and help our feathered friends navigate the night skies unimpeded. Together, we can be the change that lights the way to a brighter future for all.