07 February 2009

Destruction of Birds from Striking Light-houses Prevalent in the 1800s

If telegraph wires were known deadly hazards for migrating birds in inland places, it would be remiss to not convey that at an earlier period of time in ornithological history, picturesque and prominent icons, primarily along the eastern seaboard but also at coastal New Orleans and San Francisco Bay, were also the cause of numerous bird deaths.

[White Island lighthouse - Wikipedia]

White Island Lighthouse.

Flights of seasonal migrants were confused by bright lights emitted across the horizon during what had once been dark nights lit only by the glow of stellar constellations or a full moon orb. The artificial lights were especially threatening in the blatant darkness during subdued and seemingly unending days of low clouds, dramatic winds and storms of profound intensity.

An illumination so right for boat navigators concerned with the shore of the land as they sailed along an obtuse realm of changing waters, was so wrong for little feathered critters following pathways etched into memory by millennia of tradition. Multitudes of bird species died at lighthouses built to assist human navigation, during natural avian migrations that had previously not been so influenced by hindrances of emitted light.

There was deadly confusion caused by beams of bright light along the birds' pathways of flight.

In the history for the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, it notes that this 112-foot-tall structure was built just before 1800. Ducks, geese and other species were soon noted as flying into the windows, cracking the glass. After just six years, "a wire enclosure was woven around the top of the lighthouse, interlaced through the rails and outer braces of the lantern room, to screen the flocks of birds away from the glass."

It was a few decades later that a completely unique perspective reveals more lore on lighthouse bird strikes.

In the poetic prose "The Lighthouse" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one stanza says:

The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din
Of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within.
Dashes himself against the glare, and dies.

The Sandpiper By Celia Thaxter

Across the lonely beach we flit,
One little sandpiper and I,
And fast I gather, bit by bit,
The scattered driftwood, bleached and dry
The wild waves reach their hands for it,
The wild wind raves, the tide runs high,
As up and down the beach we flit,
One little sandpiper and I.
Above our heads the sullen clouds
Scud, black and swift, across the sky;
Like silent ghosts in misty shrouds
Stand out the white lighthouses high.
Almost as far as eye can reach
I see the close-reefed vessels fly,
As fast we flit along the beach,
One little sandpiper and I.
I watch him as he skims along,
Uttering his sweet and mournful cry;
He starts not at my fitful song,
Nor flash of fluttering drapery.
He has no thought of any wrong,
He scans me with a fearless eye;
Stanch friends are we, well tried and strong,
The little sandpiper and I.
Comrade, where wilt thou be to-night,
When the loosed storm breaks furiously?
My driftwood fire will burn so bright!
To what warm shelter canst thou fly?
I do not fear for thee, though wroth
The tempest rushes through the sky;
For are we not God's children both,
Thou, little sandpiper, and I?

At the Isles of Shoals in the Gulf of Maine, a youngster at the White Island was profoundly influenced by the natural scene, with her view conveyed in vivid and lively poetry. Celia Laighton, born in 1835, lived on the island in 1845-47 and then later also lived on nearby Appledore Island. Her times with the sea were well remembered in poems, letters and memoirs. A few words on birds hitting the White Island lighthouse were part of the collection.

"Many a May morning have I wandered about the rock at the foot of the tower, mourning over a little apron brimful of sparrows, swallows, thrushes, robins, fire-winged blackbirds, many-colored warblers and flycatchers, beautifully clothed yellowbirds, nuthatches, catbirds, even the purple finch and scarlet tanager and golden oriole, and many more beside, - enough to break the heart of a small child to think of! Once a great eagle flew against the lantern and shivered the glass."

In her older years, Celia Thaxter was one of the first preeminent women with a profound interest in birds in a poetic sense. Her verse was regularly published in the Atlantic Monthly with birds a predominant topic in "The Burgomaster Gull," "Great White Owl," The King Fisher," "The Shag," "The Swallow," "The Return of the Birds," as well as "The Song Sparrow." Another bit of land among the Isles of Shoals, she mentioned "the windfall of birds killed by the lighthouse in the spring," in a March, 1869 letter.

Essential findings were distinctly reported by Joel A. Allen in the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, in its fifth volume, as a correspondence investigation originated by Ruthven Deane some few years previously. He sent about sixty letters of inquiry to lighthouse keepers.

The reported result listed a number of light-houses, with an abstract for each, conveying notable conditions for the period about 1877-1878.

"In many cases the information is rather meagre, as would be naturally expected, owing to the inability of the reporters to recognize the species of birds that are destroyed by the lights, or to appreciate just the nature of the information required; yet their replies contribute something of value respecting the frequency of such occurrences and the circumstances attending them."

These are the light-houses listed, with pertinent details, including some recognition for the original source of information, if it was presented by someone striving to gather information via a distant manner of communication:

"1. Wood Island Light, near entrance to Saco Harbor, Maine. A flashing red light; height above sea level, 62 feet. Albert Norwood, keeper." A few strikes during foggy weather, in August and September
"2. Egg Rock Light, near the entrance of Frenchman's Bay, Mount Desert, four miles from Bar Harbor, Maine, and two miles from any headland. A fixed red light; height, 76 feet. A.H. Wargatt, keeper." Strikes notably from April 15th to May 15th.
"3. Cape Ann Lights, three fourths of a mile from Cape Ann, Mass. Two fixed white lights; height 165 1/2 feet. Albert W. Steele, keeper." Very few strikes noted, except in May and June.
"4. Marblehead Light, Marblehead Neck, Massachusetts. Fixed white light; height, 43 feet. James S. Bailey, keeper." Very few bird strikes.
"5. Minot's Ledge Light, Cohasset, Mass. Fixed white light; height 92 feet." William Sears, the keeper said: "I think hundreds are killed and fall in the water."
"6. Plymouth Light, Gurnet Point, Plymouth, Mass. Fixed white light; height, 102 feet. Levi L. Creek, keeper." Few particulars provided.
"7. Race Point Light, northwesterly point of Cape Cod, Mass. Fixed white light, varied by white flashes; height, 51 feet." No strikes noted by James Cashman, keeper.
"8. Long Point Light, entrance to Provincetown Harbor, Mass. Fixed white light, height 37 feet." Strikes occurred rarely.
[Cape Cod Lighthouse, Wikipedia]

Cape Cod Lighthouse.

"9. Cape Cod Light, Highlands, North Truro, Mass. Fixed white light; height, 195 feet. David F. Loring, keeper." A lighthouse was first built here in 1797, with the current structure built in 1857. This correspondence was dated March 5, 1877 according to the article:
"Now no sea birds fly against the light, as was the case in former years, except occasionally a Petrel, or Mother Carey's Chicken, and a small bird called by the fishermen 'bank bird' (the latter said to resemble 'Shore Birds or Peeps'). These never come except in driving easterly storms, when they are occasionally very plenty. Two hundred are seen at one time, a few of them now and then killing themselves by flying against the glass. They come mostly from the last of September till the middle of October. As many as 20 have been seen dead at one time. The large sea birds, as Ducks, Coots, etc., do not now come near the light, as they used to, which may be because they are not as plenty as formerly. Nearly all the different species of small land birds come about the light, but the Sparrows seem to take the lead in striking it. Frequently in the fall of the year we pick up 8 or 10 in the morning outside the light; the cats get a great many that fall on the ground. A great many birds alight on the window-frames outside the lantern, and sometimes stay there all night, fluttering against the glass, trying to get inside to the light. The light partially blinds them, as they allow themselves to be taken in the hand. These birds are the most numerous in September and October. A great many Plovers, it is said, used to fly against the light, but have not done so during the four years I have been here."

Henry David Thoreau wrote an article from a historic point-of-view about this place in the Atlantic Monthly, December of 1864. His words of pertinence:

"Sometimes even small birds flew against the thick plate-glass, and were found on the ground beneath in the morning with their necks broken. In the spring of 1855 he found nineteen small yellow-birds, perhaps goldfinches or myrtle-birds, thus lying dead around the light - house ; and sometimes in the fall he had seen where a golden plover had struck the glass in the night, and left the down and the fatty part of its breast on it."

He also noted the bank with breeding swallows, crow blackbirds, and upland plover involved with their nesting activities.

"10. Hyannis Light, Hyannis, Mass. Fixed white light; height, 42 feet. Alonzo F. Lothrop, keeper." Waterfowl noted to fly above the structure, situated in the village, so no strikes were mentioned.
"11. Succannessett Shoals Light-ship, 14 miles west of Hyannis. A fixed white light; height, 40 feet." Prior to 1877, ducks and coots would strike the light, and fall to the deck of the ship.
"12. Sandy Neck Light, entrance to Barnstable Harbor, Mass. Fixed white light; height, 59 feet. Jacob S. Howes, keeper." Only a dozen strikes noted during a year-and-a-half period.
"13. Cape Poge Light-house, northeast point of Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Fixed white light; height, 57 feet. E. Worth, keepeer." Only about a dozen bird strikes noted during an eleven year period.
"14. Point Judith Light, southern point of Narragansett shore, Rhode Island. Flashing white light; height, 67 feet. Josephy Whaley, keeper. ... seldom find any birds dead."
15. Black Island Light, northern extremity of Block Island. "Fixed white light, height, 204 feet." Sometimes struck by waterfowl.
"16. Montauk Point Light, extreme east end of Long Island, New York. Fixed white light varied by white flashes; height, 172 feet. N.A. Babcock, keeper. ... a few small birds fly against the lantern in summer."
"17. Navesink Light, Highlands of Navesink, New Jersey. Fixed white light; height, 248 feet. Daniel P. Caulkins, keeper. ... found most frequently in heavy weather."
"18. Cape May Light, Cape May, New Jersey. Flashing white (revolving) light; height, 152 feet. Samuel Stillwell, keeper. ... Reports that great numbers of small birds of all kinds strike the light in spring. Sometimes as many as 200 are seen dead on the ground at one time. The kinds especially mentioned are Chipping Birds, Robins, Catbirds, Flickers, Red Birds, and Sparrows."

The first lighthouse at Cape May was built in 1823, but the 64' structure only lasted 24 years. The next version only lasted twelve years. In 1859, the Army Corps of Engineers built the version present at the time of this article, and which is still operating at a natural area, which is a popular place for viewing fall bird migration.

"19. Cape Hatteras Light, North Carolina. Flashing white light; height, 191 feet. N.P. Jennett, keeper. ... 60 to 75 frequently found dead at one time. ... myrtle birds ... come in great numbers, 200 to 300 being sometimes killed in one night." Detailed notes were given for October 17, 1876 on a dark, misty night with brisk 35 m.p.h. winds from the northeast. Jennett said it was a "grand sight" with the dazzling light illuminating the birds gathered around the light. He gathered 350 from the balcony and another 140 off the ground the next morning. Some of them were "excellent food.".
20. Hunting Island Light, South Carolina; at entrance of St. Helena Sound. "Flashing white light; height, 136 feet. S.B. Wright, keeper. ... March 30, 1877. Birds killed by flying against the tower embrace nearly all kinds of Ducks and sea-fowl, and of wood and marsh birds. They are mostly killed in the fall and early winter, but are found dead at intervals all winter." During the winter there were ducks, teal, wigeon and coots. The cats and hogs had all they could eat as a result of the conditions during a "severe gale of northeast wind and rain."
21. St. Augustine Light, St. Augustine, Florida. "Fixed white light, varying with white flashes; height, 165 feet. W.A. Harn, keeper." Notably reports conditions on October 13-15, 1876: "each morning the keepers raked up more than two bushels of dead birds."
22. West Rigolets Light, entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. "Fixed white light; height, 30 feet." Information submitted by H.W. Henshaw noted: " ... The history of birds striking the Rigolets Light is, in fact, repeated, with more or less change, at all the lights on our coast, and indeed on all coasts, during the migrations."
23. Alcatraz Light, Alcatraz Island, harbor of San Francisco, California. "Fixed white light; height, 166 feet. J.T. Huie, keeper." During seven years, there were no bird strikes noted.
24. Fort Point Light, harbor of San Francisco, California. "Fixed white light; height, 83 feet." This locality also reported that "no birds came against it."
The information has a value that transcends any particular focus on present time indicated by its author. Allen wrote that the list represented "only about one twentieth of the whole number supported by the United States." His summary of the given details was provided by in brief, by a relatively few words:
"The Cape May Light is the first on the list which great numbers of birds were killed; at the Cape Hatteras, Hunting Island, St. Augustine, and Rigolets Lights the destruction is far greater, the keepers of the last-named lights reporting that hundreds are sometimes killed in a single night at each of these lights. This seems to show pretty conclusively that the southern light-stations are far more destructive to birds than the northern ones are.
"The foregoing shows that the destruction of birds by light-houses on the coast of the United States must amount to many thousands annually."

In a seminal research paper, William Brewster spent seven weeks - August 13 to September 1885 - investigating bird migration at Point Lepreaux at the apex of the cape, on the west shore of the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada. At the time, Brewster was in charge of the bird department of the Agassiz Museum in Cambridge and also President of the Nuttall Ornithological Club.

Special attention was being given to the nocturnal migrants, with a "rush" underway starting in early September. His notes convey the casualties:

  • 1st: Nine birds, of eight species
  • 4th: during the four hours between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., about fifty were killed or disabled, with others also examined; in these proportions: Common Yellowthroat (40%), Red-eyed Vireo (40%), Gray-cheeked Thrush, Swainson's Thrush, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, American Redstart and Canada Warbler.
"At the height of the mélée the scene was interesting and impressive beyond almost anything that I ever witnessed. Above, the inky black sky; on all sides, dense wreaths of fog scudding swiftly past and completely enveloping the sea which moaned dismally at the base of the cliffs below; about the top of the tower, a belt of light projected some thirty yards into the mist by the powerful reflectors; and in this belt swarms of birds, circling, floating, soaring, now advancing, next retreating, but never quite able, as it seemed, to throw off the spell of the fatal lantern. Their rapidly vibrating wings made a hze about their forms which in the strong light looked semi-transparent. At a distance all appeared of a pale, silvery gray color, nearer, of a rich yellow. They reminded me by turns of meteors, gigantic moths, Swallows with sunlight streaming through their wings. I could not watch them for any length of time without becomming dizzy and bewidered.
"When the wind blew strongly they circled around to leeward, breasting it in a dense throng, which drited backward and forward, up and down, like a swarm of gnats dancing in the sunshine. Dozens were continually leaving this throng and skimming towards the lantern. As they approached they invariably soared upward, and those which started on a level with the platform usually passed above the roof. Others sheered off at the last moment, and shot by with arrow-like swiftness, while more rarely one would stop abruptly and, poising a few feet from the glass, inspect the lighted space within. Often for a minute or more not a bird would strike. Then, as if seized by a panic, they would come against the glass so rapidly, and in such numbers, that the sound of their blows resembled the pattering of hail. Many struck the tin roof above the light, others the iron railing which enclosed the platform, while still others pelted me on the back, arms, and legs, and one actually became hopelessly entangled in my beard. At times it fairly rained birds, and the platform, wet and shining, was strewn with the dead and dying.
  • 5th: 15 birds picked up; mostly
  • 7th: caught and picked up about 25 birds
  • 8th: three birds noted
  • 9th: no strikes noted
  • 13th: only one bird was disabled

In summary:

1) No birds came about the lantern except during densely cloudy or foggy weather.
2) That they came in the greatest numbers when the night for the first hour or two was clear and free from fog.
3) That with a single exception all the nights on which the heavy flights occurred were preceded by clear, cool days.

This effort was so notable it was reported in the popular press after it was published as the first issue of "Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological Club." A brief summary was issued first in the Montreal Witness the following July. The story was then picked up by the New York Times and printed in an edition on August 2nd. Details were repeated later, in a book entitled "Our Family Friends," and again in Bird-Lore with an account of former life.

[Sombrero Key Light - Wikipedia]

Sombrero Key Light. This structure was installed in 1858, and is still in use.

Down south in Florida, the lighthouse at Sombrero Key is well known for bird strikes as a result of a comprehensive investigation on the distribution and migration of warblers in North America, by Wells Woodbridge Cooke.

"The largest single addition to the knowledge of movements of birds along the southern border of the United States is due to records of species striking the lighthouses off the south coast of Florida. Several thousands of these instances have been recorded. They furnish the best available data so far collected on the length of the migrating season, and afford also much-needed information concerning the time when many species of birds begin their migration in the fall. The keeper of the lighthouse at Sombrero Key, in particular, has taken much interest in the matter, and has spent many hours counting and identifying birds, either killed by flying against the glass protecting the light or resting bewildered on the balcony after striking. Eight hundred and sixteen records were received in five years from this one lighthouse. They comprise a total of 2,011 dead birds and 10,086 birds which struck the light with so little force that on the return of clear skies or daylight they were able to resume their flight."

Records are available from 1884-1889; and provide details for items such as earlist or latest seasonal occurrence and nights when large numbers of warblers were making migratory flights. Species documented from this locale include: Prothonotary Warbler, Swainson's Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Parula, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Pine warbler, Ovenbird, Connecticut Warbler and American Redstart.

This place was especially hazard for the Common Yellowthroat: "The flight of March 3, 1889, was one of the largest spring-flights of Maryland yellow-throats ever noted at Sombrero Key. It lasted nearly all night, and during its continuance about 150 birds struck the light. On the same night Maryland yellow-throats also struck the lighthouse at Fowey Rocks on the coast of Florida 95 miles northeast of Sombrero Key, which is just south of Cape Sable." There were more than 2,000 records of this species striking this lighthouse.

William Dutcher, in his notes about birds from Long Island, N.Y., mentioned some notable details. A Prothonotary Warbler that struck the light at Montauk Point during the night of August 26, 1886, was the first record of the species for this locale.

A year later on the island, at the Fire Island Light, there was a massive kill on September 23, 1887. The death tally was 595 birds, with about 350 of them Blackpoll Warblers, included one albino. Overall, 25 species were represented, with nearly half of them wood warblers, Dutcher wrote in his article.

In latter years, Dutcher went on to get involved with bird conservation through an involvement with the fledgling Audubon Society.

These accounts convey how a vast multitude of birds met their demise due to human constructs that barred their migratory pathways, is a vivid portrait of a historic era.

The navigational aid light-houses for the boats, were present for many previous decades, and prevailed during subsequent years. The "destruction of birds by light-houses" undoubtedly was occurring for years previous, and other years beyond what was reported by Mr. Allen in a dramatic article in a bird journal.

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