Major bird kill at Sewanee’s Memorial Cross

A scene of bird carnage at Sewanee’s War Memorial Cross on the campus of the University of the South (photo credits: Sandy Gilliam):

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The cross is a tall white structure, brightly illuminated all night by spotlights. It stands on an overlook on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, surrounded by hardwood forests, and visible from many miles away in the valley below. The night of the kill — 26/27 September — was cloudy and birds got caught in the dome of light, circling circling circling until they killed themselves by smashing into the out-sized reconstruction a Roman instrument of execution. Over 130 birds were killed.

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Catbirds

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Sora rails and American redstart

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Yellow-billed cuckoos and wood thrush

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Pied-billed grebes, nighthawk, and nightjar

Many bird migrate at night, avoiding predators, staying cool, and navigating by the stars. Bright electric lights disorient them and many are killed each year in collisions with communication towers, buildings, and other artificially lit structures. The numbers killed in this way are hard to know, but one recent review estimated “hundreds of millions (building and automobile collisions), tens of millions (power line collisions), millions (power line electrocutions, communication tower collisions)”.

Data from ebird.org (an online database of millions of bird sightings) reveals the migration patterns of birds. The following graphs are from the “Central Hardwoods” and “Appalachian Mountains” of Tennessee (to run your own analyses, click on “explore data” at ebird). The height of the green bars on the graph indicate abundance. Each species has a different seasonal pattern (some are here only in the summer, others surge through in migratory pulses, and many are winter visitors). For many migrant songbirds, mid-September through early October are peak times for movement through our region. These migrants are often very abundant in the forests around Sewanee: every bird taking the overland route from the northern US or the the vast Canadian boreal forest is winging through the southeast.

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Within a few hours of the discovery of the dead birds, staff from the University’s offices of Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability and Physical Plant Services were developing a plan to rework lighting to avoid future kills during bird migration. Many thanks to Nate Wilson, Sandy Gilliam, Greg Rollins, William Shealey, and colleagues for their rapid and proactive response.

17 thoughts on “Major bird kill at Sewanee’s Memorial Cross

      1. Robin Holt Zenker

        Heartbreaking.😢😢😢 Thank you David for your informative report and photographs. Pictures certainly tell a story. No doubt it was your concise, moving words and photos that initiated the immediate proaction. We thank you.😌👏🏼❤️✨

        Reply
  1. Lily Tidwell

    Did you keep these samples or leave them behind? I am a current student interested in ornithology and was hoping to collect a few to make study skins

    Reply
  2. Charles B. Naumann

    Has this happened before?
    Does this have to do with the phase of the moon as well as the time of year?
    It would be great to eliminate a lot of unnecessary outdoor lighting. Dark night skies are a rare and beautiful thing.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      There have been no events as significant as this one (that I know of). But birds not infrequently hit the cross in smaller numbers. I think the combo of cloud and wind, along with a major movement of birds that night, rather than the moon, was responsible. The lights are being dimmed now. I agree: the less light pollution the better for birds (and most people!).

      Reply
  3. DC Tropics

    Were many of the dead species found in pairs, or is that an artifact of the staging for photography? If mated pairs fly or migrate together, I suppose it makes a sad sense that this could happen…

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Pairing was after they were picked up. Songbirds do not, as far as we know, migrate in close pair or family units. But getting an idea of what’s out there is tough…high up, in the dark, fast moving!

      Reply
  4. giorgiana

    How tragic and frustrating. I am glad to hear that something will be done in this particular location to remedy the situation. Please keep us posted.

    Reply
  5. Chloe

    Wow. Have you identified each of the species? How often do these kills occur. Is this the first time anyone has noticed dead migrants at this location?

    Reply
  6. maria gritsch

    Heartbreaking. Wonder if similar is occurring in Los Angeles. Driving through downtown on the 110 freeway at night, every skyscraper is lit with blindingly bright lighting.

    Reply

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