Five Myths about Light Pollution

A bird’s eye view of Seattle. Graphic by Sarah Levy/Creative Commons

Light pollution: That hazy, yellow fog that hangs over cities and towns, obscuring our views and preventing us from seeing our favorite constellations. It’s annoying, sure, but can it really be dangerous?

Yes. Light pollution can be dangerous for wildlife, and can have particularly debilitating effects on migratory birds. Most species migrate at night and studies show that birds are universally attracted to artificial lights. When birds concentrate around human habitations, they are then more likely to be eaten by unrestrained cats, collide with buildings, and waste precious energy that should be devoted to their arduous migration.

In the U.S., hundreds of millions of birds likely die every year from the effects of light pollution. Here are five myths about light pollution that we’ve debunked for you, and what you can do to help.

  1. Myth 1: Light pollution is only a problem in big cities.

Bigger cities DO have more artificial light — there are more people, buildings, and cars. However, light pollution can be a problem in small towns because of their proximity to wildlife habitat. Although small towns produce less artificial light, their light can have a bigger impact, particularly on nocturnal birds and animals. Even Burns, OR — a town of fewer than 3,000 people — shows up on light pollution maps!

What you can do: Regardless of where you live, do your part to prevent light pollution, especially at home. Turn out lights when you’re not using them, and put outdoor lights on motion sensors. You can also take Portland Audubon’s Lights Out pledge, and turn off any unnecessary overnight lighting at your residence.

  1. Myth 2: Birds are afraid of light.

Birds, like some other animals, are actually drawn to light. Have you ever seen a moth fly towards a light bulb? Biologists refer to the phenomenon as positive phototaxis. Many migratory birds are phototaxic, and fly towards lit windows and buildings. Once drawn into big cities by light pollution, some birds can’t seem to find their way out again.

What you can do: If you work in a tall building, ask the building management if they would be willing to take the Lights Out pledge. If your building puts up ornamental lighting, would they be willing to take it down during the spring and fall? Another request you can make is that your building management schedule maintenance and cleaning activities during daytime hours, so that your building’s lights don’t need to be on at night.

  1. Myth 3: The problem with light pollution is that birds can fly into windows.

This is true! Birds DO fly into windows because of light pollution, but light pollution has other effects as well. I’ve always found that it’s much harder to fall back asleep in the middle of the night if I turn on a light. This is in part because the light pollution has disrupted my circadian rhythm. Light pollution affects birds and other animals in a variety of ways, and often in the same way light affects humans. Light can disrupt animals’ circadian rhythm, and interfere with breeding and migration cycles. It can also negatively affect animals’ ability to find food, to migrate, mate, as well as interrupting predator-prey relationships, and upsetting the delicate balance of entire ecosystems.

What you can do: Read up on bird safe windows, and take steps to make your home and workplace more bird safe.

  1. Myth 4: The effect of light pollution on birds is worse during the winter, when it’s darkest.

Light pollution is most dangerous for birds during the spring and fall, when birds are migrating. This is when birds are most susceptible to be drawn into cities and off their migratory routes. There may be more light pollution during the winter — which is still a problem, no doubt — but we need to be extra careful during the spring and fall. Light pollution has also been shown to increase stress hormones in nesting birds, making it harder for them to fledge young, and also decreases birds’ ability to fight off diseases like West Nile Virus.

What you can do: Do you know what kind of birds might fly over and into your community on their migration routes? Take a look around you. Help educate your friends and neighbors about how your neighborhood might actually be bird habitat. Consider putting up bird feeders, or planting native plants that some birds may pollinate.

  1. Myth 5: More efficient LED lights can help reduce light pollution.

In many ways, LED light bulbs are great for the environment. They use less energy and last longer than regular light bulbs. However, with a lower impact on our electricity bills, people are more likely to install MORE light bulbs, leading to more light pollution. Additionally, blue-white LED lights create a brighter, and more dangerous sort of light pollution for birds (and humans who may be trying to sleep!).

What you can do: Use LED lightbulbs — but don’t use any more than you need! You can choose LED lights in warmer colors and shield light outdoor fixtures to direct light downwards; select your light fixtures and LED bulbs carefully. Enjoy the energy savings, and protect migrating birds.

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USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.