San Francisco municipal buildings going dark to save the birds

A lights-out campaign to help protect migratory birds from colliding with The City's tallest buildings took flight a few years ago, and it has changed direction this season to focus on municipal buildings.

Of the more than 600 city-owned buildings in San Francisco, about 10 are at least five stories tall — the minimum height associated with frequent bird accidents — and most have signed on to the Lights Out for Birds campaign.

“Eventually we would like to see every building in The City over a certain size participate, but our short-term goal is to get every tall municipal building participating in the campaign,” said David Assmann, deputy director of the Department of the Environment. “We've hit a lot of the largest buildings and we're significantly on the way to getting there.”

Some 250 species of birds travel the “Pacific Flyway” above the Bay Area during fall migration, particularly at night, Assmann said. They navigate by the stars and are often drawn off course by urban lights, resulting in window collisions and tens of millions of bird deaths per year nationwide.

A study by the Field Museum in Chicago, which runs a similar conservation campaign, found that migratory bird deaths dropped 80 percent at a downtown high-rise when it turned off its lights.

San Francisco buildings implementing dimming-light procedures so far include 1 South Van Ness Ave., 555 Seventh St., and 1650 and 1680 Mission St. Plans to work with custodial staff and reduce nighttime lighting are in motion at City Hall, along with 25 and 30 Van Ness Ave. Together, the seven locations account for most city department headquarters.

“The thrust of this is bird safety, bird health and conserving our wildlife biodiversity in The City,” said Mark Palmer, the Department of the Environment's senior green building coordinator. “Energy savings is a side benefit.”

While tall structures present the greatest hazard to birds, shorter ones such as residential buildings also can be dangerous, said Noreen Weeden, conservation project manager at the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

“We live in a city that has many hills, and buildings are on hills and birds fly at varying heights,” she said. “So it just makes sense to do this. It's a simple thing and it's something that is positive for people as well as the birds.”

The campaign — a partnership between the Audubon Society, Environment Department and PG&E — supports The City's Standards for Bird-Safe Buildings, which was adopted in 2011 to require new buildings to abide by window treatments, lighting design and operation that are safe for birds.

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