In birdwatching circles, the more birds and species you spot on an outing, the better. Yet Teresa Somal and Stephanie Arch were pleased to find a single bird on a two-hour birding hike early Tuesday.
Why? They were looking for dead birds.
The pair volunteered to collect data this week for the Lights Out Texas Monitoring Project, San Antonio’s first survey of bird deaths caused by collisions with buildings due to artificial lighting downtown. The community science project is organized locally by the Bexar Audubon Society.
The data gathered will be used to identify areas of downtown where birds are most vulnerable. Bexar Audubon will then encourage building owners and managers to turn off excessive lighting from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. during peak migration periods in the spring and fall.
The project emerged from San Antonio’s recent commitment to its new Bird City Texas responsibilities.
Somal and Arch were an hour into their survey when they spotted the dead grasshopper sparrow at the front door of Frost Tower about 6:40 a.m. Brown and gray streaks graced the bird’s wings and cream-colored belly. Flecks of yellow topped its brow, and an oversized beak, ideal for consuming its insect namesake, seemed out of scale for its small frame.
“It was sad to see it,” Somal said later. “But if we can do something to turn the lights down and save birds’ lives, it’s worth it.”
Arch described the encounter as straddling the emotional spectrum. “It was like, ‘Oh, good, we found something we can count,’ and ‘Awww … there’s a dead bird here.'”
The duo retrieved tools from a gear bag provided by the Bexar Audubon Society and got to work.
As instructed in several hours of training, Arch and Somal used the iNaturalist app to take three photos of the bird: back, side, and belly. Doing so automatically geolocates the bird and uploads the photo to the community science platform for accurate identification by experts.
Next, they measured its length and recorded the data on a clipboard. With a gloved hand, Somal gently lifted the dead creature into a zip-lock bag, then tucked it into a cool, insulated storage sack. She clipped the sack closed and included a paper slip with an identifying number.
The bag and specimen would later be delivered to Texas A&M University for dissection, analysis, and use in eight science projects, said Patsy Inglet, president of the Bexar Audubon Society.
Arch and Somal served as two of about 125 volunteers who assisted in the data collection effort, which started April 19 and continues from 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. daily through May 7, said Inglet.
Inglet described the grasshopper sparrow as “mostly local,” although it can move south with the arrival of cold weather. The birds breed at the Cibolo Nature Center, especially when the grass is short. They eat grasshoppers and other insects and make a “charming little grasshopper sound.”
In North America, an estimated 600 million birds are killed each year because of bird strikes – birds flying into windows or buildings – and light pollution, according the the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The lab ranked San Antonio the 10th most deadly U.S. city for spring migratory birds.
During one incident, 395 birds smacked into a 32-story skyscraper in Galveston in a single week. All but three of the birds perished from the disorientation and trauma caused by the buildings’ floodlights.
Inglet suggested that San Antonio’s premier bird strike survey will likely document only several dozen strikes this spring migration season.
“This is our first year and we don’t have any data yet. Anything we collect that helps our decision process is helpful,” she said.
San Antonio’s initial bird strike count of two dozen seems minuscule compared to a city like Dallas, where more than 500 bird strikes were documented during the 2020 fall migration season.
San Antonio’s architectural ethos of historic preservation, understated lighting, and few glass towers might partly explain why.
“We have a different character to our buildings,” said Britt Coleman, Bexar Audubon Society board member and chair of the conservation and advocacy committee. “They’re lower and there’s not nearly as much glass.”
“We don’t have the blazing light pollution like you do in Dallas or Houston,” said Inglet.
High-rise structures with sky-mirroring construction like Frost Tower can be confusing for birds, which migrate at night and are drawn to light. The recent addition to San Antonio’s skyline has been the primary location of bird strikes documented to date, said Coleman.
Bird strikes can occur on any building. The glass panes don’t have to be multiple stories high to cause bird deaths, said Inglet. “We’ve all heard the dreaded thud,” she said.
Earlier this week, a painted bunting that had smacked into the office at the San Antonio Report in St. Paul Square was discovered by environmental reporter Brendan Gibbons.
To avoid bird strikes on your windows, consider reflective tape, decals, paint, netting, or screens. If you find a dead or injured bird, email the Bexar Audubon Society, which will try to collect it and submit it for use in science.