Mass Songbird Death in Galveston Spurs Call for Bird-Safety Ordinance

Mass Songbird Death in Galveston Spurs Call for Bird-Safety Ordinance
Courtesy Galveston Co. Animal Control
The sudden death of 400 songbirds in Galveston has sparked outrage and calls for a new bird-safety ordinance.

Around 400 songbirds, mostly warblers, died during a single night in May after crashing into a 23-story building on the island. The tower, which houses the American National Insurance Company, is illuminated by floodlights — which caused the birds to become confused and fly into its windows.

Now, local bird lovers are demanding action. An online petition to Galveston Mayor James Yarbrough, asking that the city require office buildings to turn off their lights at night, has gained more than 25,000 signatures. “The bright lights of the tall building were mistaken for moonlight or the sun, luring [the birds] to a tragic end,” the petition’s author, who gave his name as Andrew, wrote.

Since Galveston lies along a migratory bird route, Andrew argues the city has a responsibility to keep birds safe during the spring migration season, which runs from early March through May. Turning lights off "is both effective and saves energy,” he wrote.

Richard Gibbons, a conservation director at Houston Audubon, told Care2, the website where the petition was hosted, that his group would support a lights-off ordinance in Galveston. Houston Audubon already has an optional program called “Lights Out for Birds,” which urges office buildings to “prevent bird mortality while conserving energy and saving money,” according to the group’s website.
click to enlarge The American National Insurance Company building in downtown Galveston. - COURTESY GOOGLE EARTH
The American National Insurance Company building in downtown Galveston.
Courtesy Google Earth
The coastline of Texas is home to one of the main spring migratory bird routes in the United States. The Houston Audubon runs High Island, a nationally recognized bird sanctuary in Galveston County, where visitors can admire a variety of bird species, including cerulean warblers, marbled godwits and short-billed dowitchers.

Bruce LePard, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for American National Insurance Company, noticed the carnage as soon as he got to work on May 5. He walked up the flight of stairs to the main entrance of his building, where a sea of bird carcasses were strewn about.

“It was obvious that something was wrong,” he told Houston Press. “There were birds everywhere.”

The Galveston Police Department and the city's animal control officers did not respond to calls from the Houston Press, but the Houston Chronicle reported the number of dead birds at 398.

LePard called security, who in turn contacted the city. The American National tower was built in the 1970s and is the tallest building in downtown Galveston. But until this incident, LePard said, he was unaware of any bird crashes.

LePard said his company turns off interior lights at night and doesn’t use mirrored windows, avoiding two of the biggest risk factors in bird crashes. And while the building does have floodlights — American National stopped using them after the avian tragedy — LePard thinks the causes of the crash were “multi-factored.”

“There was wind and rain and a bunch of tired migratory birds,” he said, noting that Galveston had a wind advisory the night before. “It was an act of God, I guess.”

LePard also reached out to the Audubon Society, in hopes of using the incident to spread awareness about bird safety. One of his ideas, he said, was to host a meeting for local officials and bird enthusiasts. So far, no meeting has been planned.

What has LePard learned from the experience? “The first thing is, let’s turn off the lights,” he answered. “We don’t need those things on.”
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Stephen Paulsen is a journalist and native Houstonian. He writes about crime, food, drugs, urban planning and extremists of all kinds. He covers local news for Houston Press and cannabis policy for Leafly.