Next Big Steps for Lights Out Legislation in New York City

The bright lights of New York City's downtown captured by a camera that NYC Bird Alliance and the University of Delaware installed on the Durst Organization building in Manhattan's Midtown. Photo: NYC Bird Alliance/University of Delaware/The Durst Organization

This article appears in the fall 2023 issue of The Urban Audubon publication.

By Suzanne Charlé

In late 2021, NYC Bird Alliance and the Lights Out Coalition celebrated the passage of Lights Out bills Int. 274 and 271, requiring City-owned and -managed buildings to turn off non-essential outdoor lights at night during peak avian migration periods. This was a big step in making the City safer for the millions of birds that pass through during fall and spring migration.

Now, NYC Bird Alliance and its partners are encouraging the New York City Council to consider expanding the “Lights Out” program to privately owned commercial and industrial buildings, as well as other buildings such as U.S. post offices, labs, and outpatient clinics.

“I strongly believe in legislation that not only benefits our environment but our wildlife as well,” said Councilmember Francisco Moya (Queens District 21), who introduced Int. 1039 in May. “We see a huge number of bird deaths in New York City each year. Why walk past these dead birds on the sidewalk, when we can do something as simple as flick a light switch to prevent it? This is a no-brainer.”

NYC Bird Alliance Executive Director Jessica Wilson speaks at a rally outside City Hall in support of Lights Out legislation, Int. 1039, on May 11, 2023. Photo: NYC Bird Alliance

Int. 1039 would require buildings to limit non-essential interior and exterior lights from sunset to sunrise year-round. If passed, this would be landmark legislation, first of its kind in the country, with the potential to save thousands of birds. According to NYC Bird Alliance Director of Conservation and Science Dustin Partridge, PhD, more than 100 species, including most songbirds, migrate at night. Bright artificial lights act like a trap, pulling the birds to the City, where they become disoriented and exhausted. It’s estimated that nearly a quarter of a million birds die annually as a result of collisions in New York City.

Kathy Nizzari, the founder of the Lights Out Coalition, a consortium of local conservation and animal welfare organizations, was instrumental in convincing Councilmember Moya to introduce the legislation. Nizzari stresses that many other animals, including humans, are affected by bright lights; organizations including the American Medical Association support efforts to control light pollution. Limiting light will also help reduce the City’s carbon footprint and save money for building owners. As of the time of writing, in August 2023, 10 council members are sponsoring Int. 1039 and NYC Bird Alliance, with the Lights Out Coalition, is working to secure additional co-sponsors.

Int. 1039 answers many complaints that the real estate industry has had about “Lights Out” proposals in the past: small businesses that occupy less than 4,000 square feet are exempted, as are landmarked buildings; those that are 20 stories or more may apply to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for relief. Also, buildings that have significant security risks without nighttime lighting—such as those that need to be visible to aircraft—may apply for exemption. Another concern from the real estate industry has been public safety: large stores and offices would be allowed to keep their interior and exterior lights on as long as employees are working in the buildings.

The urban glow of our city can draw in night-migrating birds to our city, disorienting and exhausting them, and making them more likely to collide with windows. Photo:

Just how many buildings fall under the rule is unclear, but it’s a lot. According to the Department of Buildings, there are approximately 21,000 so-called Class B and M buildings in the categories in question. (This does not include buildings built 40 years ago, for which there were no records given.)

That leaves the remainder of the City’s million-plus buildings. However, Dr. Partridge maintains that passing Int. 1039 will be a major step if buildings go dark, “especially since many of the buildings impacted are in lower and midtown Manhattan, which have recorded the most bird kills in the City.”

“The bill will benefit both birds and people,” stresses Jessica Wilson, NYC Bird Alliance’s executive director. “Turning off lights at night doesn’t just help birds—it will make the City more sustainable and resilient for all New Yorkers.”

Even as NYC Bird Alliance and its partners work to further this landmark legislation, the organization’s scientists continue to collect the data that fuels NYC Bird Alliance’s advocacy efforts. On the night of September 11, as has been the case for over 20 years, NYC Bird Alliance community scientists will be at the Tribute in Light memorial lighting site with binoculars trained on the towering twin beams of light, looking for birds trapped in them. When more than 1,000 birds are counted in the lights, NYC Bird Alliance asks the memorial producers to turn the lights off for 20 minutes to allow the birds to disperse. As Dr. Partridge notes, “the Tribute in Light is a powerful memorial for New Yorkers, but it is also a powerful demonstration of light’s impact on birds, and how we can help.”

Learn more about how you can help NYC Bird Alliance pass Lights Out legislation Int. 1039 on our Lights Out Legislation page.

NYC Bird Alliance volunteer monitors the 9/11 Tribute in Light for birds that are ’caught" in the light beams on September 11, 2022. Photo: NYC Bird Alliance