Hedy Tung, Photo Editor

Following student advocacy, the Yale Divinity School will now pledge to dim or turn off all nonessential lights during fall and spring bird migrations, as part of the National Audubon Society’s “Lights Out” program.

Audubon’s Lights Out is a national effort to reduce bird collisions due to artificial lights. Every fall and spring, billions of birds migrate across the United States. The majority of birds fly at night, exposing them to bright lights and skyglow. According to Audubon, these lights can cause disorientation, resulting in birds flying into buildings or windows. The University has experienced significant issues with these bird collisions in recent years, with birds crashing into the glass facades of buildings such as Evans Hall.

“When we start to lose these voices of God’s creation, we lose some of God’s wholeness in this earth,” Meredith Barges DIV ’23 said. “We’ve lost, like, four billion birds and all that bird song, and we’ve been losing all those actual species that are going extinct…I see it as losing the wholeness and fullness of God’s creation.”

Barges, who spearheaded the Lights Out initiative at YDS, has been an avid birdwatcher for eight years. She recounted the experience that first helped her realize that lighting was an issue at the Divinity School.

In addition to being a fun and rewarding hobby, bird watching can also be a great way to help protect birds. As artificial lights can be a major threat to birds, especially during migration. When birds fly into brightly lit areas, they can become disoriented and collide with buildings or windows. This can lead to serious injuries or death.
One way to help protect birds from artificial lights is to “dim the lights” during migration season. You can also help by using light-blocking curtains or shades to prevent light from spilling out of your windows.

If you are interested visit the website learnbirdwatching. Discover the World of Bird Watching, including how to get started, where to go bird watching, and what to look for. You can also find information about specific bird species, as well as tips on how to attract birds to your backyard.

Barges had hoped to watch the Perseid meteor shower, which occurred in the second week of August. However, she found that, due to the light pollution, she was unable to see any meteors at all. Barges got in her car and drove around looking for a place to see the stars.

“Then I was waiting … for there to be a better lighting plan as migration was starting,” Barges said. “But I came over to the buildings, and they were lit up like Christmas trees, and I can’t tell you how angry it made me. I was actually like cursing, like never a night goes by where I don’t see how many goddamn lights are on. Like why? Why does it have to be so many lights everywhere?”

She eventually emailed Dean of the Yale Divinity School Greg Sterling to voice her concerns. She added that she was surprised by how responsive Sterling was to her suggestions.

Specifically, Sterling has instructed YDS operations to turn down the landscape lights in their back garden. These lights no longer radiate skyward. In addition, Barges has been given a paid job as a monitor, to go through the Divinity School building between 10:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. to make sure all lights have been turned off. 

According to Barges, this protocol has made YDS the first lights out campus with administrative support for the effort.

“Species elimination is a real problem in our world right now,” Sterling said. “There have been a good number of bird species that have been lost. I think we all need to be committed to helping the smaller, weaker species on our planet to have full lives, to be able to survive.”

Sterling’s connection to bird collisions goes back to his childhood. Growing up, he recalled watching a group of Canadian geese becoming disoriented due to lights and having to fly around his hometown the entire night. 

Viveca Morris ’15 ENV ’18 SOM ’19, an associate research scholar at Yale Law School, has been working with the Peabody Museum to informally monitor bird collisions on campus. While her efforts are focused on improving and regulating building design, Morris voiced her support for the Lights Out program.

“I think it’s an issue people really care about, and it’s a very popular issue,” Morris said. “In a time of many controversial issues, this is something we can absolutely do to help birds and to enrich our city and to enrich our campus, and enrich people’s lives and protect these animals.”

Even with the collaboration of the administration, there have been some challenges.

According to Kaley Casenhiser DIV ’23, a collaborator on the Lights Out initiative and a Green Faith fellow, one main issue that the project has faced is that not all lights are designed to be dimmed, which makes it more difficult to have them turned down.

She also added that the question of safety was also raised in conversations regarding the project, although she commented that the concern “was very quickly dismantled.”

“What are reasons to turn on the lights, and who are we fearing in that statement?” Casenhiser told the News. “And is that fear actually rooted in an understanding of radical embracement and a love that is predicated on welcome, of creatures and humans included?”

Barges echoed this sentiment, commenting that for her the Lights Out project is not only about birds but rather a “nexus” for interrelated environmental, social and economic issues.

She cited research that suggests that although turning lights on may make us feel safer, it does not necessarily increase security. As an example, she said it was significantly safer to keep lights entirely off during World War II.

“We really need to rethink how we do lighting…we need to question it,” Barges said. “Because it’s not having the impact that we thought it would. It’s not making us safer the way that we think it should. It’s an old way of thinking. It’s an outdated way of thinking.”

The initiative is currently working to release an official proclamation announcing YDS’ cooperation with the Lights Out initiative. Moving forward, Barges hopes to expand the initiative to the School of the Environment and eventually to the rest of Yale.

At the Divinity School specifically, Casenhiser has helped plan the school’s Bird Migration Mass, during which Sterling will speak about Yale’s participation in the Lights Out initiative. 

The mass will also include a prayer for the season’s migrating birds, as well as a musical performance and a poetry reading all related to birds. People attending will be invited to share meaningful experiences they have had with birds. 

The Bird Migration Mass will take place on Oct. 18.

Isabelle Qian covers Yale's graduate and professional schools. She is a sophomore in Pierson College and comes from Seattle, WA.
Alex used to cover all things the Divinity School. Now, she serves as Weekend Editor. She's a junior in Trumbull majoring in English.