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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

“If we light Ninigret Park at night, it will become a field of goose-liver pate.”

Fact-checking Ruth Platner is a full-time job.
This eared grebe didn't have the bad luck to fly over a
Walmart parking lot during a snowstorm.
Credit: Maga-chan

By Linda Felaco

At the March 1 Planning Commission meeting, regular as rain, Commissar Ruth Platner made yet another of her trademark all-encompassing, unsubstantiated statements, to wit, that if sports lighting is installed at Ninigret Park, it would create the illusion of water and cause migrating waterbirds to dive into the ground by the thousands and die.

She made this sweeping statement on the basis of exactly one freak instance last December in which snow and low-lying storm clouds—birds tend to fly at lower altitude during inclement weather—caused more than 4000 eared grebes to crash-land in a Walmart parking lot out in Utah, killing 1500 of them.

Now, I don’t want to see Grebe-ageddon in Ninigret any more than Ruth does, but something about this statement just didn’t ring true.

How could birds ever fly over any city at night if they’d all end up dying like lemmings? And the sports fields at Ninigret wouldn’t be lit during snowstorms anyway. If lighting alone caused birds to crash-land, everyone who attended outdoor nighttime sporting events would be going home with goose-liver pate. Or perhaps duck under glass. Mike Chambers has stated that he plays night softball up in Cranston. I’d be interested to know how many times he’s collided with a grebe while rounding the bases. For that matter, how is it that people can order a lobster at the seafood festival without getting a side order of eider?
Don't forget to e-mail your entry in the First (maybe Last)
Progressive Charlestown Peeps contest.

So I decided to take a stroll through the scientific literature on the subject and found that it’s wet roads that waterbirds tend to mistake for water, not athletic fields. Which isn’t to say that we should just light up the night sky willy-nilly. Like Will, I immediately noticed upon moving to Charlestown how many more stars I could see at night than when I lived in the city. And as Will has pointed out, there are plenty of actions residents and business owners could take on their own to help keep the sky dark short of an actual ordinance.

The bird-light problem is actually not a new one, and is not restricted to sports lighting. Mass bird deaths were noted around lighthouses and lightships as long ago as the 1800s. Should we shut those off as well and let ships crash in the night? Aircraft warning lights on communications towers also lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of nocturnal migrants each year, but somehow people don't come out en masse with the pitchforks (no torches, of course, because they wouldn’t be dark-sky compliant) to oppose new cell towers. Sure, there's the usual NIMBY contingent, but they get no traction with the Town Council or Planning Commission because federal law severely limits what can be done at the local level to block individual towers.

Nor are the effects of night lighting unmitigatedly negative. Bats benefit from lights because they attract the insects they feed on, although this means the bats can then outcompete other insectivorous species. Research indicates that replacing mercury vapor lamps with high-pressure sodium vapor lamps, which attract fewer insects (and have the added benefit of being more energy-efficient), benefits both bats and insects. Except the dark-sky ordinance inexplicably bans sodium vapor lighting (Section 1, part D).

There are practical measures that can be taken to minimize the risks of bird carnage. The problem is most acute during the new moon. Replacing red lights, which disorient birds, with white ones can substantially reduce deaths of migrating birds. And of course birds don’t migrate year-round, so seasonal restrictions on lighting can also be very effective.
Would you rather have them in front of the TV
eating potato chips?

For example, as part of the Audubon Society and the city of Chicago’s “Lights Out” program, the owners of downtown skyscrapers agree to turn off unnecessary lights during the annual spring and fall bird migration. Researchers at Chicago’s Field Museum say the program has saved the lives of more than 10,000 migratory birds.

In short, there’s really no reason why migrating birds and healthy, active, sports-playing kids and adults can’t coexist, even here in the Northern Hemisphere where the days are short in the winter and without lighted fields, players would have only very limited playing time between the end of the school or work day and the onset of darkness.


Adelheid Fischer, “Starry Night.” Places, 2011.

David Hill, “The Dark Side of Night Lighting.” Science, 7 April 2006, p. 56.

Travis Longcore and Catherine Rich, “Ecological light pollution.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2(4): 191–198 (2004).

Catherine Rich and Travis Longcore, Eds., Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting (Island, Washington, DC, 2005).