Today is 9/11 .

Tribute in Light 2012 - The sparkles aren't stars. They are birds. Photo Robyn Lee (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tribute in Light 2012 – Photo Robyn Lee (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  (click to enlarge)

From dusk tonight until dawn tomorrow morning, eighty-eight 7,000-watt xenon light bulbs positioned into two 48-foot squares will echo the shape and orientation of the Twin Towers. This ” Tribute in Light” reaches 4 miles into the sky and is the strongest shaft of light ever projected from earth into the night sky.  On a clear night it is visible for 60 miles in every direction.

These spectacular beams draw our eyes, but they also draw birds. By the thousands.  Migratory birds that would normally just be passing through are attracted to the beams like moths to a flame. And to observers on the ground, it must seem like something of a miracle, these swirling , sparkling, and calling creatures, lit from below as though being lifted by the light. Click the photo above to enlarge it and you can see the birds.

But then the reality of the situation becomes apparent. The birds are trapped there — unable to see their way out or tear themselves away from the columns.  As well, they are quickly using up precious energy needed to complete their migrations.

When the lights first came on in 2002, writer Craig Childs noticed the birds. As reported by Robert Krulwich,

“In his book, The Animal Dialogues, [Childs] writes that as they walked closer, “we realized the lights were filled with movement. Countless birds raced in and out, bright, meteoric paths cutting the sky. … Never had I seen such a gathering, plumes of birds billowing upward, multiplying upon themselves until they appeared infinite, as thick as Milky Way stars.”

“But few species of birds besides whip-poor-wills and nighthawks are night feeders.” So, no, they were just stuck. The birds “were fixed solely on these two lights. … Many would probably die because of this, their energy diverted, wings exhausted. We were killing them.”

Fortunately, the Municipal Arts Society, the organization that runs the Tribute in Light, was concerned about the birds.  Following the first lighting in 2002, they immediately engaged the help of New York Audubon volunteers who now monitor the beams every year.  When too many birds become stuck, the lights are turned off for 20 or 30 minutes to allow the birds to leave.

The number of birds varies from year to year depending on wind, weather, the moon phase and other factors.  In 2012, Cornell ornithologist, Andrew Farnsworth recorded his observations at the Tribute in Light on eBird.  In two hours, he and his team recorded more than 2000 birds covering 28 species plus 7 other taxa.

2010 was a particularly busy year. According to Bradon Keim in a 2010 Wired article:

“Rowden estimates that 10,000 birds entered the beams, becoming confused and circling until the Municipal Art Society, working with New York City Audubon, shut the lights for 20 minutes, allowing the birds to leave. That happened five times over the course of the night.”

I find it encouraging, that while we remember the greater importance of the human lives lost in 9/11, we have also acknowledged the importance of the smaller creatures with whom we share our cities and lives.


Video by Andrew Farnsworth