The moon is still bright when Wendy Crowe and Megan Johnson start their pre-dawn bird patrol. Equipped with a flashlight, Crowe illuminates the perimeter of buildings, stairways and various corners of the city, looking for signs of imperiled critters. We are in the heart of downtown Baltimore, an area replete with sleek glass buildings that are nice to look at but a danger to migrating birds.
“It’s easy for them to get confused by the reflections of the glass,” says Crowe, speaking in a tone that matches the 5 a.m. quiet. Johnson, her co-volunteer, adds that lit windows are especially dangerous because birds are attracted to light.
Crowe is in her third season of patrolling, while Johnson is on her second day. Both are volunteers with Lights Out Baltimore, a nonprofit project of the Baltimore Bird Club, a local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society.
I’ve joined the two on their 5-mile, 5-7 a.m. vigil through Charm City. It’s early in the spring migration season, so Crowe doesn’t expect to find too many injured birds. However over the course of the year Lights Out Baltimore finds about 450 injured or dead birds in Baltimore City. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that up to one billion birds die each year in the United States from window strikes.
When migrating at night, birds, especially songbirds, are drawn to light and will strike windows that are lit up. When migrating by day, the birds see the reflection of trees and vegetation in the glass and fly towards it. Once injured, a bird’s survival rate drops drastically.
With Crowe as our lead, we walk the perimeter of buildings, climb stairs and enter outdoor alcoves—dropping in on the random thoroughfares wildlife may hide in. “We have a route we follow,” Crowe says. “We hit a bunch of different buildings with a lot of glass.”
Crowe knows the route by heart and can tell you which buildings are the biggest offenders. Not unlike her feathered friends, she has an internal campus she follows each season.
The first encounter of the morning comes about 20 minutes into the patrol, when Johnson finds a deceased waterthrush laying in a planter. Though it’s not a migratory bird, it’s clear that it has perished from colliding with the building and not from a predator. Johnson enters the bird into the social networking site, iNaturalist, while Crowe catalogs it into the nonprofit’s records.
“We take the dead ones to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History,” Crowe says. The organization uses them in research and education.
Not 10 minutes later, we find a live bird stuck in the corner of a building, pecking at the glass window pane as if it's come face-to-face with a new threat to its territory. Crowe and Johnson discuss whether or not they should try and shepherd it in a new direction or leave it alone, worried that if they scare the bird it will crash into the walls. “It’s sort of a judgment call,” Crowe says.
In the end, they let nature take its course.
Searching the city in this way, you can see how easy it is for birds to have their migration upended by the cityscape. The buildings tend to have a smattering of trees outside, illuminated by artificial lights—a fetching place to rest from a bird’s perspective. However, right next to the trees is the reflective glass that causes so many issues.
While investigating one such building, I hear a sharp clink and see a flash of movement.
“Did you hear that?” Johnson says. “A bird just hit the wall.”
One of Lights Out Baltimore’s missions is to spread awareness about bird safety. They hand out educational materials about why building managers should reduce lighting at night, and have information on their website about what you can do to your windows to make them less dangerous to birds.
Though most of downtown Baltimore is not bird safe, some buildings are the exception.
According to Crowe, several years ago employees at the National Aquarium started to notice more and more deceased birds ending up outside their building. Birds often follow waterways when they migrate, so the Aquarium's position on the harbor makes it a “birdy” place. To remedy the situation, the Aquarium put up a film along their glass walls that’s made specifically to reduce bird collisions. In 2021, the organization also began replacing all 684 panes in their iconic glass pyramid to be darker, reducing the threat to birds.
After checking out the Aquarium, we leave the waterfront and head back into the city. It’s close to 7 a.m. and the sun is now fully up and the patrol is coming to an end. Crowe and Johnson head down a wide alleyway between tall, brick buildings—the kind of walled-in environment where wind tunnels form. At the end of the alley, just around the corner, the group finds a swamp sparrow laying on the ground but still breathing.
Together, Crowe and Johnson spring into action. Crowe lays a net over the bird, collects it and places it into a bag that Johnson has labeled.
“It looks like a bird that’s hit a window,” Crowe says.
Having volunteered as the driver for the day, Johnson will be the one transporting the critter to the Phoenix Wildlife Center in Phoenix, Maryland. The nonprofit takes all of its injured birds to this center, where they are able to assess their condition and treat their injuries.
Later in the day, I make a phone call to the center to check up on the sparrow. The center responds with a detailed text message, saying that the bird was treated for possible head trauma that occurs with window strikes. They offered him food (blueberries and crickets) and allowed him to rest, and he’s due for release the next day.
As Johnson heads off for her car, Crowe finishes the route without finding any other injured birds. The number of casualties should only increase as we get deeper into the migration season, which makes their efforts invaluable to these visiting critters. If you’d like to learn more about Lights Out Baltimore and the issues surrounding bird travel, you can visit the group’s website at lightsoutbaltimore.org.