As cities across the country encourage residents to turn off outdoor lighting during the fall bird migration season, a Fort Worth bird expert says pet owners can take an extra step to protect birds: Keep their cats indoors. 

Light pollution is one of the greatest risks to migrating birds that travel through Texas during the fall migration period, which lasts from Aug. 15 to Nov. 30. Artificial lighting emitted from buildings can disorient birds and lead to crashes into buildings. Up to one billion birds die per year because of collisions with windows, according to research from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

But the Cornell Lab estimates that cat attacks kill billions of birds each year – more than any other cause. Cats are estimated to kill more than 2.6 billion birds annually in the U.S. and Canada, making it the No. 1 human-caused reason for loss of birds besides habitat loss. 

“If a person is looking to impact bird populations, the best thing they can do is keep their cats indoors,” said Brad Hazelton, bird curator at the Fort Worth Zoo.

Cats are a favorite household pet, but there are over 110 million feral cats in the U.S. and Canada. Strays are responsible for more than two-thirds of birds killed by cats in the United States. 

There are many ways to keep cats happy and protect bird populations. If a cat wants to be outside, owners can create a small patio, also known as a “catio”, that serves as a wired-in outdoor space for them to play out, said Ben Jones, executive director for Texas Conservation Alliance. 

“It’s not good for cats just to roam the neighborhood either,” Jones said. “They’re exposed to a lot of threats: cars, disease, parasites. Even their feces carry disease.” 

Training your cat to walk on a leash is also a solution that allows cats outside, but keeps them from having free range. 

“Some feral cats’ lives can be as short as two years because of all the threats out there,” Jones said. 

Songbird populations have taken some of the greatest hits, and there’s been a huge loss, Hazelton said. Songbirds, a specific suborder of birds, have a specialized vocal organ called a syrinx that distinguishes them from other bird species. 

Many songbirds are common backyard birds at risk to cats, according to the Ocean State Bird Club. Some species include the common American robin, sparrows, blue jays and woodpeckers.

Jones added other solutions to increase bird populations include introducing native plants to backyards, buying bird-friendly coffee – which is shade-grown coffee rather than sun-grown –  and avoiding pesticides. 

Bird surveys, light sensors coming to Fort Worth

In the midst of the fall migration season, the Texas Conservation Alliance’s statewide Lights Out Initiative asks residents to turn off ambient light during the nighttime hours of 11 p.m. and 6  a.m., with heavy focus on the downtown Fort Worth skyline. Downtown Fort Worth Inc. joined the initiative in March 2021 alongside city leaders in Dallas and other Texas cities. 

The Lights Out mission focuses on protecting the dwindling population of migrating birds that pass through Texas on their path south, Jones said. Millions of migrating birds are put at risk of artificial light exposure.

“Light is a really powerful sensory stimulus for wildlife of all types,” Jones said. “It is so injurious to a whole host of taxa.” 

In a 2019 study conducted by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Dallas ranked as the third most dangerous city in the country for migrating birds, behind Houston and Chicago. The study ranked metropolitan areas where light pollution and geography posed the greatest threats to birds.

Of the world’s bird population, about 40% migrate. A large percentage of migrating birds in North America pass through Texas during their migration periods in the spring and fall, Hazelton said. 

“Many birds have to follow land masses to migrate, so it’s very difficult for bird species on the coasts to migrate south without passing through Texas,” Hazelton said.

This is the fifth season that the Lights Out Initiative has been working with the city of Fort Worth. Jones said the city has been a real leader in the movement to decrease light pollution during migration periods. 

This season introduced preliminary test surveys of birds that died from building collisions in downtown Fort Worth. The surveys will officially launch in the spring with daily surveys from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. during migration seasons, Jones said. The Texas Conservation Alliance is already conducting those surveys in downtown Dallas with the help of several local partners.

“We’ve done about 10 surveys in downtown Fort Worth so far, so that’s exciting,” Jones said.

Jones added that the preliminary surveys will map out the perimeters of the buildings and identify a route and parking spaces. 

Fort Worth Lights Out leaders are also partnering with University of Oklahoma biologist Jeffrey Kelly and University of Oklahoma college students to fund light sensors. The sensors are devices that measure emitted light and can add insight into the effects of artificial light on migrating birds, said Kate Johnson, Lights Out leader and Fort Worth philanthropist.

“The sensors will hopefully be put into place (in downtown) sometime this winter,” Johnson said. “All of these people are going to connect the dots and receive the information they’ve been missing – it’s a fabulous collaboration and it’s so important.” 

Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Reach her at izzy.acheson@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Izzy Acheson

Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she graduated from Texas Christian University in 2022 with a double major in journalism and environmental...