A recent NPR report detailed an issue that seems to be prevalent throughout the entire broadcast industry, but not often talked about: broadcasting towers are killing birds. If you’ve driven around at night, you have likely seen one of these towers lit up with bright red lights. The lights are there to warn low flying aircraft of these giant obstructions, but they haven’t had the same luck with birds.
According to NPR, there was a broadcasting tower in Gun Lake, Michigan that was responsible for the death of 2,300 birds in a single night. Caleb Putnam, who has a joint position with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Audubon Great Lakes, told NPR that for reasons scientists can’t figure out birds just keep flying into broadcast towers. If you take that number and multiply it out by the thousands of towers that exist in the United States you end up with an absurd amount of dead birds. In the U.S. alone it’s estimated about 7 million birds die from hitting broadcasting towers every year. It’s a serious problem.
That night in Michigan took place in 1976, scientists had no idea why these birds kept dying until 2003 when biologist Joelle Gehring started a study to find out what could be done. It was a grueling study, often involving Joelle and her colleagues visiting various towers during migration season to count dead birds. They discovered the cause, and it’s as simple as it is surprising: lights.
“We were able to reduce the numbers of bird fatalities on communications towers by simply extinguishing those non-flashing lights,” Joelle told NPR. “Those fatalities were reduced by as much as 70 percent.”
While there is no definitive answer as to why these lights are causing birds to fly to their deaths, Joelle does have a theory. “Some research has documented that when birds are exposed to long wavelengths of light such as red or white that it actually interferes with their ability to use magnetic fields for navigation,” Gehring says.
In 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) changed the regulations for new towers requiring that every new tower be built with only flashing lights, and it’s working. While there are still thousands of towers that are not bird friendly, steps are being taken to help the bird population by broadcasting companies. It’s a fascinating problem, with a simple solution.