Lindsay Jacks shows up at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
a day before the federal shutdown. The 30-year-old bird lover has a penguin-related tattoo on her arm, a cooler in her hand and a Safeway bag knocking against her leg.
“What’s in the cooler?” the security guard asks.
“What’s in the bag?”
Curt nod. Poke, poke with the wand. Dismissive wave. “That way,” he says, indicating that Jacks should sign in for her meeting with Brian Schmidt, the museum specialist who will accept her offering.
Jacks is a bird keeper at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore (the bar-code tattoo honors her favorite charge, Penguin No. 597). She is also a member of Lights Out Baltimore, an organization, started in 2008, that scours the streets in the predawn hours to collect birds — dead or stunned — that have collided with windows in the city’s corporate canyons. She and fellow volunteers such as librarian Lynne Parks are part of a growing micro-movement to effect environmental change, one dead bird at a time. They walk the same route each morning; it is a routine echoed in cities across North America: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Washington.
Members of Lights Out Baltimore and Lights Out DC cap each spring and fall migration season by taking their frozen birds and inventory lists to the Smithsonian. There, ornithologists preserve the bodies and add many of them to the institution’s collection of 600,000 dead birds. The birds provide material for the 300 or so researchers who visit every year to study migration habits, global warming, bird-plane collisions, environmental hazards, disease and, of special interest to the Lights Out communities, the damage done by the sirenlike lights that surround our city centers.
Migrating birds, who use the moon, stars and electromagnetic fields to help them navigate their journeys, become disoriented by the bright steel and glass structures below them. Drawn to the light, they descend and become trapped in the urban maze, unable to distinguish between street lamps and stars, real light and reflected light, bona fide trees and mirrored images of trees in windows.
Though hard numbers are difficult to come by, a 2005 USDA Forest Service report estimated that 500 million to 1 billion birds are killed annually nationwide because of collisions with buildings, communication towers, power lines and other man-made objects. The highest number of deaths occurs from window strikes. During fall 1970, 707 dead birds were found below the Empire State Building alone.
Clearly more research is needed. “I don’t know that the numbers of migrating birds dying from lights and disorientation have necessarily increased in the last decade,” says Smithsonian bird specialist Schmidt. “But we’ve had no way of measuring that until now, with observers out there collecting and counting.”
With the help of Lights Out volunteers, scientists now know the 25 bird species most vulnerable to window strikes. Topping the list are the black-throated blue warbler, the ruby-throated hummingbird, the golden-winged warbler and the brown creeper. It is possible that the collections could help scientists document changing migration patterns and threats to specific species: Although Lights Out folks in the District and Baltimore have never found dead birds on the endangered species list, they regularly collect 12 types on the “species of greatest conservation need” list.
Their collections are affecting not only research but also policy. “Most people are oblivious to the impact lights have on birds,” Schmidt says. “But the effort to publicize with Lights Out is helping change that.” San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis and Toronto have passed legislation mandating lights out in commercial buildings and/or requiring “bird-friendly” construction of new buildings. No similar proposals have been floated in the District or Baltimore city councils. U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) introduced a bill in Mayto require all federal buildings to meet “bird friendly” standards (two previous efforts went nowhere).
“The government is now getting behind these programs — and it not only saves birds but also conserves energy,” says Anne Lewis, president of City Wildlife, the nonprofit group that runs Lights Out DC (and recently provided temporary refuge for Washington’s injured snowy owl). Until Lights Out volunteers discovered otherwise, the District’s low buildings hadn’t been considered problematic. Now, Lights Out DC, which started in 2010, hopes publicizing the problem will encourage builders to tweak architectural designs to address bird strikes: Windows can be treated with shades, films, stickers or etched glass; lights can be cupped to shine downward, re-focused or turned off.
Perhaps none of this would be happening without citizen-scientists dedicated to a rather morbid avocation, folks who soon will take to the streets again to document the deadly toll the buildings of Washington and Baltimore will have on the spring migration.
It is 5 a.m. a few months before the carcass handoff at the Smithsonian, and Lights Out Baltimore members are roaming the sidewalks of Baltimore’s corporate center like a band of guerrillas, skulking down the empty streets, hugging the sides of buildings, scouring the ground for casualties. They duck into alleyways, loop around glass atriums. Their ears are attuned to every sound. At this hour, the streets belong to them, lone scavengers of death, prowling for fatalities with only the occasional security guard to interrupt their solitary route.
Jacks is among them, as is Lynne Parks, 45. At 5:17 they split up, each casing one side of a building. They both find fatalities. Parks discovers a still-warm ovenbird. “I can tell it’s dead from its eyes,” she says. She pops on latex gloves, squats to lift the tiny warbler and cradles it in her palm. “See how sunken they are?”
Sometimes she uses a flashlight to check the eyes for contraction or movement. Occasionally the birds are stunned but alive, and volunteers rush them to a wildlife rehabilitator who injects steroids to reduce brain swelling, then releases survivors. But there is no need this time. Parks turns the bird over, caresses its chest with her thumb and bends forward to peer closely at it. The eyes are frozen, the body not yet stiff.
“These are neotropical migrants,” Parks says. “They head south to Central and South America in the fall and back north in the spring.”
She inspects the body. It is exquisitely beautiful with a black-and-white streaked chest. “They live in the woods. If you take a walk in the woods you probably hear them. They have a loud, two-note song that sounds like ‘teacher, teacher.’ ” She pulls out a snack-size zip-lock plastic bag and seals the bird inside, puts it in her purse, moves on.
On the other side of the building, Jacks finds a common yellowthroat, another warbler. It also is dead. She, too, tucks it in her purse.
When the two reconvene, they hunker down on the sidewalk to share the contents of their bags. Jacks pulls out a piece of paper and makes notes: where they found the bodies, date and time, type of bird. It is 5:30 a.m. now, and a light rain begins to fall. They flip up the hoods of their jackets and trudge on. They have miles to go before they sleep, or clock in at their day jobs.
Why do they do this?
“I come from a family of birders,” Parks says at one point, as if biology were destiny. Her father worked as a landscaper at Dulles Airport, and, in the course of tending his 10,000 acres of undeveloped land, was always bringing home wounded animals for his family to care for — owls, rabbits, turtles, crows. “We would do our best to heal them and release them.” The same birds returned to the family’s suburban Annandale yard each year. Her father “could hold out his hand, and a cardinal would take food right out of it.”
Parks, a self-taught visual artist drawn to the “discarded, forgotten and obsolete” who works at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, joined the Baltimore Bird Club, then Lights Out Baltimore in 2010. “Loving birds as much as I do, I wanted to do something to help.”
Hiking the predawn streets for hours several times a week takes a toll on Parks, who has been struggling with a rare form of cancer for 31 years. She has desmoid tumors, which surface all over her body, requiring surgery, then reconstructive surgery; she says she identifies with “broken, patched-together” things. Her Lights Out experience shows up in her artistic works in oversize, beautifully detailed photographs of lifeless birds. This year, she received a Baker Artist Award for her photos, which are on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through April 6. “I wanted to draw attention to what’s happening to these birds,” she says.
Jacks — less poetic, more practical — is matter-of-fact about the dead birds. Indeed, she simply plops the 50 carcasses she collects into her freezer until the end of the migration season. (No worries from the roommate, who is an elephant keeper at the zoo and used to this stuff.)
When Jacks started college she wanted to be an elephant keeper, too. But the only zookeeper internship she could land was in the bird department, at the National Zoo in Washington, and she fell in love. “Now I would never want to be with elephants or big cats,” she says. “Me, I’m a bird nerd now.”
In addition to helping care for 46 penguins and a few cormorants at the Maryland Zoo all day and collecting Lights Out birds in the wee hours, she spends her weekends birding or saving red knots in Delaware. She vacations in a tent on a remote island in Maine volunteering to band puffin chicks. “Two weeks at a stretch without a shower,” she notes.
But she loves helping them. “Birds are intelligent,” she says. “Most people don’t realize that.” The zoo cormorants have been trained to jump on the scale so they can be weighed. They’re also crate-trained, so they can be easily transported to the vets. And they are distinct. She recognizes each of her charges and can sometimes forestall serious illness when she notices a penguin feeling under the weather.
The dead birds don’t make her sad. “Some of my friends, even at work, say, ‘How can you go out and just collect dead birds?’ But I know what we’re doing is meaningful. ... I will be doing this for a very long time, I can tell you that.”
When spring migration has ended, Baltimore birders gather in a room at a local parks building to classify and record their finds. The dead birds form a mountain on the table, an ornithological plague pit.
“What about this junco?” one wonders.
“Let me look at it,” Lindsay Jacks says.
“Wing chord, 72,” she says.
“Light-colored,” he observes.
“Beautiful,” she says, sighing.
“Female,” he decides.
“Snowbird,” she adds.
“October to April,” he says.
“Get an age on her?”
Jacks reaches down into a cooler. “Ruby-crowned kinglet,” she says.
“Ahh,” he says. “Bright red crown.”
“Yes,” he says.
She stares at the pile of plastic sandwich bags on the table, sighs.
“How many?” he asks.
“Fifty?” she speculates.
“Low,” he says.
“Yes,” she agrees. “Last fall it was 180.”
Jacks and Mike Hudson, a Baltimore City College high school senior and avid birder, are charting the species name, age, weight, gender (if they can decipher it), wing chord (a wing measurement), date, location and manner of death. Birders are an obsessive lot; Hudson, 18, carries a book where he records every single bird (399 species so far) he has seen since elementary school. They speak in code. Each bird they pull out of the cold treasure chest/morgue is a surprise gift wrapped in plastic and a new challenge.
“Wow, look at this!” Hudson crows, gently caressing a Cooper’s hawk, studying its feathers and speculating that it is immature.
Near the windows where the light is better, Parks is having a Mathew Brady moment, photographing the carnage. She picks birds whose colors or death pangs move her. She has plenty of choice.
As Brian Schmidt takes Jacks on a tour of the back corridors of the Smithsonian, she marvels at the scope — row after row after row of cabinets containing stuffed birds. The Smithsonian collection, the third largest in the world, dates to the 1840s, with some birds collected by Darwin, Audubon, Theodore Roosevelt. The museum also preserves celebrity birds; Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons, will rotate out of the morgue to a public display case next year.
Eighty to 85 percent of the world’s bird species are represented in the back rooms. This geographic range, which spans more than a century, allows ornithologists to track diseases, genetic mutations and migration trends. Still, it’s an exclusive club. “We’re kinda tight on space, so we can’t keep everything we get,” Schmidt says, explaining a labyrinthine game of insider-trading that museums and wildlife centers use to build collections.
It will take some time before Lights Out Baltimore’s birds are prepped to join their feathered friends in this hall of fame or are traded on the exchange. While they wait, they will lie in a walk-in freezer. Schmidt leads the way, explaining to Jacks that on this late September day before the federal shutdown, Smithsonian staffers are preparing for the worst; he puts her birds in one of the few freezers with a backup generator. Birds to the left, “mammals to be tanned” on the right.
In the preparation lab, specialists will wash the Lights Out birds to get rid of bacteria that decompose. Then the birds will be gently dried in barrel tumblers filled with sawdust. Schmidt will remove their innards, save tissue samples in test tubes for the global genome initiative, then stuff them, place cotton in their eye sockets, label them and “file” them with their relatives. In his 19 years at the Smithsonian, Schmidt has prepared 10,000 birds for display; he can taxiderm one in a half-hour.
Those in less pristine conditions — rats, cats and pigeons sometimes snack on the birds — are destined to become skeletal specimens. The Smithsonian’s live bug collection gets a treat here; carrion beetles are employed to delicately eat them to the bone. “When [the beetles] are very active, we’ve thrown in a bird, and they’ll swarm it and clean it overnight,” Schmidt says.
Next Schmidt shows Jacks the birds’ final resting place in the permanent collection. Jacks, joking that she is obsessive-compulsive, is in heaven as she walks into this orderly netherworld of file cabinets where each bird is labeled, tidily catalogued and arranged in taxonomic order based on evolution, from ostriches to songbirds. The stiff birds lie in their coffin-drawers with small ID tags tied around their feet. The oversize birds — eagles, penguins, Andean condors — stand upright, eerily draped in plastic shrouds like ghosts ready to haunt the hallways once the lights go out. Skeletons, scattered throughout, grace the counters.
Jacks and Schmidt talk like wine connoisseurs on a tasting tour. They compare, contrast, marvel, parse the samples. “This is a good example of extreme sexual dimorphism,” Schmidt says, opening a drawer containing cotingas. The males are bright orange, attractive, sexy. Their house-frau partners are a dull brown, the better for hiding nests from predators. He explains: “This guy is not doing any child-rearing.”
“I really want to see the Cracidae,” Jacks says of the bird family. “I’ve never seen one in the wild.” The species, indigenous to South America, exists only in zoos here and is similar to our turkeys. Schmidt opens a drawer. “Ahhh,” Jacks sighs.
The two move down a few aisles, turn on some lights, then lapse into ornithologist gossip about the grey-winged trumpeter, a South American bird similar to our turkey. “I’ve seen villages where they catch them while they’re young and raise them as pets,” Schmidt says. “I saw a grey-winged trumpeter once in one village that was like a dog and rubbed against you to have its head scratched.” The villagers also said the bird liked to play soccer. “But ‘he wasn’t very good,’ they told us.”
They trade tips about live birds. Typically, concussed birds that are revived are released back into the wild within 24 hours, so feedings are minimal. But fledglings they keep longer. “And we’ve learned how to feed and save some woodcocks,” Jacks says.
“Give them a worm Slurpee?” Schmidt asks.
She laughs. “Kind of.” In fact, because woodcocks use their long pointed beaks to poke about for food, Jacks has taken to recycling syringe tubes from the zoo. She packs worms and dirt into the syringe and sticks it under the grated cage so the woodcock can poke its beak in and extract worms the way it is used to foraging.
Even with their high-set eyes and great peripheral vision, woodcocks are vulnerable to window strikes. Schmidt has placed one of the Lights Out woodcocks on a lab table, alongside several trays of other Lights Out dead birds lined up like soldiers in a common grave and in front of a cardboard coffin of some of the organization’s bird skeletons. Jacks runs her finger along the woodcock’s chest, sighs.
Some weeks later, in an outdoor cafe in Baltimore, Parks will revisit the question of why she is drawn to create what some viewers might consider morbid photographs of birds. It’s not the grotesqueness or even their violent death, she says, but rather the artful uniqueness she sees when she takes their portraits. “Somehow I am documenting that individuality, that beauty for the time they were here.”
For her, it’s part of a larger artistic exploration of humans’ relationship with the environment. “I spend a lot of time in the alleys near my house,” she says. “I study the decay, the trash, the decomposition of the city.” The birds, she says, are coping the best they can. The birds, the environment, her art, her activism: “Everything is connected.” She gives a lopsided smile; multiple surgeries have shifted the contours of her face.
“Did you hear that?” she asks.
There is a truck idling nearby. On the tailgate is an ovenbird, the cousin, perhaps, of the dead one she tucked in her purse some months earlier. It sits in a plume of exhaust, coping. “Teacher, teacher,” it chirps. Or, perhaps, “I’m here, I’m here.”
Karen Houppert is an assistant professor at Morgan State University and a frequent contributor to WP Magazine.
Related story: John Kelly: How many birds die from hitting D.C. buildings? Volunteers are trying to find out.
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