Towers of Light vs The Birds

James Wagner asks about the flecks in the light beams in this photo he took of yesterday's Tribute in Light 9/11 memorial. Via alex (scroll down): "This is what birders were afraid of: this year's Tribute in Light display coincided with a big migrant flight. Too bad for the birds. Here's a report received from bird advocate Rebekah Creshkoff (a non-birder friend who saw the display thought that there was "glitter" in the light beams; that was birds.)"

I was at the Tribute in Light briefly tonight, from about 10:30 to 11. I didn't see our volunteer Brooke, but I sure hope she or Eileen or Denise had/have a camera. I didn't, but what's going on down there should be documented.

THOUSANDS of birds were behaviorally trapped in the columns of light. The beams were visibly filled with birds for their entire height, looking like clouds of bugs. Their twittering was audible.

Their brightly illuminated bodies were reflected in the windows of nearby buildings -- 3 World Financial Center and the movie theatre. The light was so bright, some birds looked as though they were on fire.

There were so many birds, it was impossible to track any one individual for any length of time. I did see one bird that circled in and out of the uptown beam six times before I lost track. Each time, the bird stayed in the light for from 3 to 9 seconds.

The lowest 30 feet or so of light had moths instead of birds. Fantastic numbers of moths were attracted to surface of the big lamps. Assistants (wearing sunglasses) frequently wiped the surface of the lights with a cloth; even so, there would be smoke from all the moth bodies just moments later. I saw one bird lower down (apparently) escape the beams.

The birds were visible to the naked eye as sparkling motes floating in the light from Barrow St., about a mile or so uptown.

I found all this extremely disturbing. It takes a songbird about a week to lay down a gram of fat -- fuel for its long-distance migration. That fat will carry it about 120 miles. How much fat are they wasting flying around in those beams, only to have to (best case) spend the next several days refueling in food- and habitat-poor lower Manhattan?

The beams put me in mind of the old-time ceilometers -- beams of light formerly used at airports to measure the height of the cloud cover. Many significant birds kills were documented at ceilometers. I am attaching a paper I wrote for the organizers of the first Tribute in Light, which references ceilometer data.

The good news is, the lights will be off tomorrow. But is the human value of the Tribute in Light really worth imperiling thousands of birds -- and incinerating God knows how many moths?


Just wait till they fire up those big wind turbines in the Freedom Tower.

- tom moody 9-12-2004 10:35 pm

Thanks for reblogging this, Tom. It’s too bad, since the lights are one of the better artistic statements to have come out of 9/11 as functional public art, as opposed to all the banal images of heroic firefighters or the politically correct critiques issuing from the art world; it’s a shame they are environmentally compromised. I don’t suppose many will think the problems of a few (thousand) birds outweigh the emotional needs of a nation, at least as a once-a-year thing, but at least the information may reach an audience which I suspect is sympathetic to both positions, and force them to think about it. Interesting how widespread the confusion over the source of the “glitter” was.
- alex 9-13-2004 4:48 pm

I guess my feelings on subjects like this can be found in two 70s truisms that were abandoned in the 80s: "small is beautiful" and "think globally, act locally." If a giant, energy devouring building is destroyed and thousands of lives lost the best response is a dedicated green space and annual candelight vigils, or something else that "walks lightly on the earth." Dick Cheney would sneer at that, but his ilk are killing the planet, so fuck him. Also, the Towers of Light aren't that spectacular. Dallas has such light beams as a permanent fixture of the skyline on one of its downtown buildings (or at least did when I moved in the 90s). They're like a permanent disco opening.
- tom moody 9-13-2004 5:38 pm

...his ilk are not killing the planet more making sure this planet survives without the likes of 'his ilk', and anyone around at the time.

>>seed pod
- anonymous (guest) 9-13-2004 6:29 pm

I was down and around there on Satuday night. There were several versions to the moths that I heard. One person said the city had released the moths, and they were supposed to represent the thousands of souls going to the heavens. Then, when they started plummeting and frying on surfaces of the lights - well - that reminded people of another 9/11 image. I actually heard some gasps and saw a few people holding on to each other with expressions of horror as we watched the dead moths fall onto the lights. I didn't see birds. But I didn't stay around for too long.
- selma 9-13-2004 10:34 pm

The pyramid shaped casino in vegas has a light at its peak that points straight up. It's the idiotic cherry on top of a stupid building.
- mark 9-14-2004 3:02 am

That moth story is a great example of urban myth making (or just plain rumor) in action. I’d laugh if it weren’t so pathetic. Everyone knows the phrase “like a moth to a flame” but people go around thinking they live in some controlled, sterile environment, totally unaware of the millions of other creatures all around us.
- alex 9-14-2004 4:13 am

It's okay, I laughed. And to my disbelief the rumor was quickly spreading through the crowd. (It did remind me of a City story though, where there was some unveiling - I can't remember now which - and they couldn't find doves so they used pigeons instead).
I did wonder about the quantity though, so many moths. I just hope it was some sort of beacon that summoned them from my closet as well.
Just as an FYI, here is a site (MAS – the organization which got the money from the LMDC to mount last Saturday’s “tower of lights”, first defined by Creative Time) outlining many of the Lower Manhattan projects that are now in the works.

- selma 9-14-2004 6:21 pm

that was in JC and they were squab.
- bill 9-14-2004 6:58 pm

thanks bill. "These pigeons were supposed to fly," insisted Guy Catrillo, a chief organizer of the 9/11 Memorial Committee. "But," he added philosophically, "without a doubt, it beats what could have happened to them. They were soup birds. I like the idea that I helped these squab get a second chance.". e-gads.
- selma 9-14-2004 7:04 pm

I am just really grateful someone blogged this because I really thought I was losing my mind. could see the creatures moving in the lights all the way from bklyn and drove to the base with a friend to see thousands and thousands of moths. I have searched newspapers online and off all week and I am kind of shocked there was not one photo or mention of this occurrence anywhere - the site was so stunning that even if they could not get themselves to care about nature you'd think someone would find it unusual enough of an event to print a picture. I did not look up, once at the base, high enough I guess to discern any birds.... it was sad enough seeing the moths sizzling on the lamps and some guy next to me said "isn't it beautiful?" and I said, "actually, I find it kinda apocolyptic." I agree with the other rebeckah - what kind of a tribute is it really to all those people who died, if we kill so many birds in the process? accck -
- rebecca m. 9-15-2004 4:56 am

I guess the display was what they call a "catastrophic success."
- alex 9-15-2004 5:17 am

Here is Gothamist's take.
- selma 9-17-2004 12:21 am

Hmmm. I guess Gothamist has never heard of google: searching "tribute in light" + birds or "towers of light" + birds pulls up this post and several relevant others.
- tom moody 9-17-2004 12:49 am

I know, that is what I was thinking, thank goodness for digitialmediatree.
- selma 9-17-2004 12:54 am

Hello? It's a shame you guys are finding out about this phenomenon for the first time. Did you know that hundreds of millions of song birds EVERY year are killed, due to lighting and lighting tall structures? It's called "light pollution", when it's aimed upward. It also does a fine job of obscuring your view of the stars. Several months before the WTT were destroyed, the management voluntarily stopped lighting up the Towers due to the fact that bird carcasses were found at the base of the buildings every morning.

The Audubon Society has a very good list of recommended building practices, and the Green Buildings Council has good exterior lighting recommendations that will stop this. And of course, idiotic "light" displays will need to be halted.

See more negative effects of bad night lighting:

There is a New York State bill under consideration to stop bad lighting, too: S 3003.

Join us, we need your help.


- susan (guest) 9-29-2004 10:14 pm

I forgot to mention that their is an organization that provides information about how to help birds by re-thinking our construction of buildings: Fatal Light Awareness, and here is their page on the NYC buildings:


- Susan again (guest) 9-30-2004 4:22 pm

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