April 14, 2021 341 PM
Each year, nearly 2 billion birds migrate through Texas in one of the planet’s great wildlife spectacles.
Birds have intrigued me since I was a little girl. My mother was a knowledgeable, self-taught naturalist who was passionate about birds. Her fascination with bird-watching began when I was 10. She volunteered to be my Girl Scout leader, which involved helping us earn our bird badge. We would sit outside for hours with our binoculars and wait for birds, such as painted buntings and yellow warblers, to flit past. We would admire their beauty, their songs and their freedom as they soared across Midland.
The sky in Midland was a flawless dome. The land didn’t pitch or rise but remained perfectly flat without buildings or bright lights to obscure birds’ flight or our view. For as far back as I can remember, on spectacular summer nights, Mother would grab a blanket and we would go outside to lie on the ground and gaze at the sky. And as we lay together on the hard grass, she would say, “Look up. Laura, look up.” And it was then, as a bright-eyed girl, that I began to look up to not miss the beauty of the world around me.
As first lady of the United States, I highlighted our country’s national parks and focused on conservation initiatives. When I returned to Texas from Washington, D.C., I helped found Texan By Nature with a group of friends and committed conservationists. We believe that our health and prosperity are dependent upon our natural resources, and we hope every Texan will join us in caring for the land, water, skies and wildlife that make our state special.
Protecting migratory birds is an easy way to take care of Texas. U.S. bird populations are declining rapidly, with devastation to common and rare species across every ecosystem. Due to urban sprawl, tall buildings, highly reflective glass windows and bright lights, an estimated 1 billion U.S. birds die every year solely from collisions with buildings and structures.
But the good news is, there’s an easy fix. Every Texan can participate in protecting our feathered friends by simply turning off their lights at night. During Texas’ peak spring bird migration period, April 19 to May 7, Texans should turn off all nonessential lights from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Each night, each light turned out helps save migrating birds. And as an added bonus, turning off nonessential lights also saves energy for cities, local businesses and homeowners.
Light pollution is a growing and under recognized threat to birds. The light emanating from cities like Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston attracts and disorients birds, leaving them confused and vulnerable. Large numbers of light-related collisions have been documented in cities across the country for decades, including here in Texas. In 2017, nearly 400 migrating songbirds were killed in a single night at a brightly lit skyscraper in Galveston, prompting the building owner, American National Insurance Co., to collaborate with Houston Audubon and become one of the first commercial buildings in Texas to adjust its night lighting to protect birds.
Taking action now is vital because every spring and fall, between a third and a quarter of all birds migrating at night through the United States travel through Texas. Bird collisions can occur at any point during the full spring migration March 1 to June 15, but experts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology say that the window of April 19 to May 7, when half of the total spring bird migration traffic passes through our state, is most important.
As famed ornithologist and naturalist Roger Tory Peterson once shared, “Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.” Birds are critical, and they contribute to humans’ daily life.
Birds control pests, eating 400 million to 500 million tons of insects annually. They pollinate about 5% of the plants we use for food and medicine each year. They maintain diverse ecosystems by spreading seeds through their droppings. Birds help our economy, playing a major role in the ecotourism industry that boosts the United States by more than $100 billion annually. And they’ve sparked innovative ideas. From flight to navigation to noise reduction, birds’ example has been paramount to human progress.
So join me in the statewide effort to protect our birds. One in every three birds migrating through the U.S. will soon fly through Texas. I hope to see cities and citizens across our state take up the challenge and issue their own lights out proclamations, just like Dallas and Dripping Springs did last fall. We have an opportunity to work together to protect birds in the coming weeks.
And when the sun sets each night and you turn off your lights, I encourage you to do as my mother would, and look up. You might just see something magical.
Laura Bush is founder of Texan By Nature and a former first lady of the United States. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News where it first appeared on March 14, 2021.