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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Local Birder Involved in Inaugural Lights Out Cincinnati

Some people go to downtown Cincinnati to work or to dine or for entertainment or for lots of other reasons. But one reason you never thought was to look for dead birds. And that’s when I had one of those never-thought-of-that moments. But that is exactly the mission of Lights Out Cincinnati. Local bird enthusiast Debra Hausrath is a participant and introduced me to the program.

In addition to being a remarkably talented gardener and birder, Debra Hausrath also volunteers for the Cincinnati Museum Center and that’s how she got involved in Lights Out Cincinnati.  And that’s where she met Dr. Heather Farrington, the Curator of Zoology for the Cincinnati Museum Center.

The Lights Out program organizes volunteers to monitor particular routes in downtown Cincinnati to look for and collect dead and injured birds during migratory periods.

Dr. Heather Farrington and Debra Hausrath on a recent early morning survey walk. Courtesy Debra Hausrath. 

The injured birds are sent to rehabilitation and are then released. The dead ones are identified by species, scientifically preserved, and then archived in the Museum Center for study.

I met up with Debra Hausrath and Dr. Heather Farrington at the Taste of Belgium downtown after one of their early (6:00 a.m.) walks around the city. On this particular morning there were seven volunteers who covered four distinct routes. By eight o’clock the group logged about four miles and found only five dead birds. That was a good morning compared to what happened in Galveston, Texas a couple of years ago where they found 395 dead birds had crashed into a 23 story building within hours. That was a massive death toll that stunned local wildlife officials. And incidences like this can be avoided if a new program, Lights Out, takes hold as it spreads across the country.

Dr. Farrington says that, “It’s hard to bird proof buildings.” Debra Hausrath adds that “We have had birds crash into the windows at our house” in Fort Thomas.

I asked Debra how she became interested in birds. She says, she was “very young, about 16. I  was on a Girl Scout bird walk - and I made fun of it.” She laughs but then quickly adds, “I got into it seriously after college so I joined the Richmond, Virginia Bird Club. I now lead bird walks at Cincinnati Nature Center and volunteer in the zoology lab at the museum.” So this program was a natural fit for her.

Dr. Farrington originally began her studies on fish but then “The first time I held a robin, I was hooked. Since then, I have been working on birds.”  

Debra Hausrath enjoys the work because she gets to “participate in citizen science. There’s a chance to meet, talk, and work with like-minded environmentalists. It’s a way of giving back. (Not to mention it’s good exercise and great fun being downtown.)”

They said that for the most part, birds can fly above many buildings, but they generally migrate at night. So when it gets close to dawn they are attracted by the lights of tall buildings and that’s when they get confused and crash. Tall buildings, lights, and reflective glass can be a deadly combination for birds passing through the area on their their migratory flights.
One of the dead birds that flew into a city building. Courtesy Debra Hausrath
The local Lights Out Cincinnati program just started this year. It is locally sponsored by the Museum Center, the Cincinnati Zoo, and the Cincinnati Nature Center. The program’s purpose is to monitor bird deaths and injuries during migration periods in the spring and fall and to encourage buildings to participate in the program by dimming or turning off lights during that time.

Dr. Farrington told me that “Cincinnati is not seeing the numbers that other cities are seeing. Last year, Cleveland found 2,100 dead birds.” The Lights Out program is pretty simple. It collects data to encourage buildings to turn off or significantly dim lighting during migratory seasons in order to prevent problems. The program is about really being good a good steward of the earth, not to mention the promotional value it adds to a building management program.

But the truth is that birds are suffering.  Dr. Farrington says, “Oh, yeah, Habitat loss is huge.” We cut down forests for new housing or malls or business or for lumber and we don’t think about the consequences that has on the natural world. It’s tough to find that balance. Dr. Farrington adds,  “But then migration is dangerous.” The next migration season runs from August to October and the program will need volunteers.

Birds have inspired mankind for millennia and now we  have an opportunity to keep that inspirational alive. The Lights Out program is a good start.

You can check with the Museum Center, CNC, or the zoo to get more information. Or you can check out the website - - or their Facebook page.  You can also check out the National Audubon's website dedicated to the program -

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