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University of Pittsburgh Helps Migrating Birds by Dimming “Victory Lights”

By Marc Devokaitis
The Pitt Victory Lights photo by Michael Kutilek
The Pitt Victory Lights. Photo by Michael Kutilek.

From the Spring 2019 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Every time the University of Pittsburgh football team wins a game, powerful spotlights aimed straight up at the sky shine from the tallest building on campus for several nights. Now thanks to quick action by a few people who care about birds, these “Victory Lights” will not pose a hazard for birds migrating through the area.

On Saturday, October 7, 2018, Pitt won its homecoming game against Syracuse, triggering illumination of the Victory Lights. The following evening, Pittsburgh-based nature writer and bird blogger Kate St. John was monitoring weather radar and saw there was a large pulse of bird migration around Pittsburgh right after sundown. Knowing that the lights were still illuminated, St. John drove to campus to find out if birds were becoming disoriented by the bright blue beam.

St. John had previously blogged on Outside My Window about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s and NYC Audubon’s collaborative work to mitigate the bird-collision risks from the massive 9/11 Tribute in Light installation in New York City (check out The 9/11 Tribute in Light Is Helping Us Learn About Bird Migration, from Living Bird, Autumn 2018), so she was familiar with the migration hazard these lights represented. Sure enough, as she approached the lights, she counted around 100 birds circling in the light beam. The next morning, she wrote a second blog post titled “Deadly Attraction” about the threat to birds posed by the Victory Lights, along with this call to action: “The 9/11 Tribute [in] Light had this problem and solved it. I hope we can solve it at Pitt, too.”

Anthony Bledsoe, a retired Pitt faculty member who sits on the board of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, read St. John’s blog post and sent it to his fellow board members. The news immediately prompted ASWP Executive Director Jim Bonner to reach out to the University of Pittsburgh and its board of trustees. Bonner shared St. John’s blog post, as well as a New York Times op-ed column, written by Cornell Lab scientists Andrew Farnsworth and Kyle Horton (both of whom are consulting scientists at the NYC Tribute in Light) about how the bird-collision risks posed by bright, nighttime light installations can be mitigated with a cycle of regularly shutting off the beams. Within hours of sending his email, Bonner was talking directly to Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

By the end of the day, Bonner had secured an agreement that the university would dim the lights for 15 minutes out of every hour of illumination, allowing any trapped migrants to continue on their way.

“We’re really glad to have been made aware of this situation,” said Pitt Director of Media Relations Joe Miksch about the new Victory Lights protocol.

“The reaction from Pitt was amazing. The chancellor and senior facilities personnel showed a genuine interest in addressing the problem,” said Bonner. “It all happened in the span of a single day. It helped that there was documentation of the problem, and clear science pointing the way to a solution”

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