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Two groups encourage ‘lights out’ for human and bird benefits

Photo of the Milky Way by Chase Fountain

The visible Milky Way is fading from the night sky due to light pollution, but Highland Lakes residents can take steps to protect the heavenly view during Hill Country Night Sky Month in October. Photo by Chase A. Fountain/Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Two organizations are encouraging Highland Lakes residents to go as dark as possible every night through October.

The Texas Conservation Alliance is recognizing Lights Out, Texas! from Sept. 5 through Oct. 29, while the Hill Country Alliance designates October as Hill Country Night Sky Month.

The main idea for both is to encourage residents and business owners to dim outside lights, and those visible from outside. This simple act can save money, improve human life, keep the Milky Way visible, and possibly save millions of migrating birds.

“We call it the edge of night,” said Amy Jackson of the Hill Country Alliance, referring to a line that cuts through Texas, almost along Interstate 35. To the east of it, based on a satellite image taken at night, masses of lights penetrate the dark. To the west, Jackson pointed out, the lights begin dissipating and some spots are completely black. 

The Highland Lakes lies to the west of the “edge,” and the Hill Country Alliance wants to keep it that way. It is educating the public through its Hill Country Night Sky Month campaign.

During October, the group will present several public awareness and outreach programs, many of them virtual, to highlight the importance of keeping the night sky as dark as possible.

“Light pollution affects so many things, including the human circadian (sleep) rhythm,” Jackson said. “It also creates more unsafe glare. And, you know, in most cities or urban areas a few decades ago, you could still see the Milky Way at night. Now, most people in cities can’t. You have to go to some pretty remote places to see it.”

Places with a dark night sky can also take financial advantage of it from a tourism aspect, as people scope out prime stargazing spots. 

During a recent Horseshoe Bay City Council meeting, councilors passed a resolution supporting Hill Country Night Sky Month. The city is also recognized as an International Dark Sky community for its efforts to control nighttime light pollution.

Along with its negative effects on humans, light pollution also can have a devastating impact on birds, especially during fall and spring migrations. Disorienting lights can cause nighttime flyers to strike buildings and other structures.

The Texas Conservation Alliance and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are promoting Lights Out, Texas!, an effort to protect the millions and millions of birds that fly across the state toward their wintering grounds.

Texas anchors the central flyway, one of the routes migrating birds follow south. Researchers believe about 98 percent of the migrating North American bird species have been recorded in Texas.

“Texas is super important for migrating birds, and birds in general,” said Ben Jones, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance. “We’re kind of a super highway for the migrating birds.”

Jones said lights coming from the ground or buildings appear to confuse birds, causing many to crash into structures. 

Researchers aren’t exactly sure why human-created lights have such a devastating impact on the birds, but they do. 

According to a Cornell study, ongoing since 1970, he pointed out, the North American bird population has plummeted by about 3 billion, or 30 percent of the bird breeding population. The top reasons, Jones said, are loss of habitat and habitat degradation and feline predators both feral and pet.

However, he pointed out, “building collisions are another reason we’re losing so many birds. Over time, even one migration, we’re beginning to really understand the cumulative numbers we’re losing.”

Jones said if people turned off or dimmed outdoor lighting or indoor lighting visible outdoors through Oct. 29, countless birds could be saved.

Along with installing dimmers or timers to cut back or turn off outdoor lights when not needed, other simple steps include placing shields over the top of outdoor lighting so the light shines toward the ground and not into the sky. All of these things are typically inexpensive.

The Hill Country Alliance has other ideas and tips on its website. 

Jackson said there are a number of county Friends of the Night Sky groups, though Burnet and Llano counties don’t have one. Anyone interested in starting a group may contact Jackson.

Jones said people can contact him if they are interested in learning more about protecting migrating birds.

“When you think about these birds, some of them will fly almost straight through, it makes you want to root for them,” he said. “Migration is such an incredible feat.”