Mixed Signals

September 15, 2010

Brit Trogen


If you caught a glimpse of the Tribute in Light this year, you may have been struck by the beautiful simplicity of the twin beams of light. But many New Yorkers saw something else when they looked skywards at the 88 spotlights: thousands of tiny white objects, swirling mysteriously in the beams. 


According to John Rowden of Audubon New York, the UFO's can in fact be very easily identified: they were about 10,000 migratory birds, accidentally waylaid by the brightness of the beams.


Bird migration is often disrupted by human activities; from hunting and power lines to unnatural lighting, as in this case. And part of the problem is that we still don't understand all of the mechanisms that drive bird navigation. Is a bird like a basset hound? What about a living compass? New studies are placing special emphasis on the importance of a bird's sense of smell over long distance migration routes, while others insist on the importance of a "sixth sense" that gives them the ability to "see" the Earth's magnetic field, partly reliant on eye structures called cryptochromes (I know, those don't sound secret and magical enough...)


But whatever the key, sunlight, moonlight and starlight likely play a role in calibrating their internal compasses. On this September 11 evening, however, there was no sun. And it was a brand new moon. And overcast. Which left the birds with only the bright, New York City lights, and the brighter-than-normal memorial. Cue swirling vortex of ornithological doom!


Only kidding, bird lovers! Our feathery friends were released (slightly dizzier than before) during five 20-minute intervals over the course of the night, thanks to some help from Audubon and the Municipal Art Society. All in all they probably won't be in any long-term danger from the ordeal... just a little bushed.



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