Lights Out History
Chicago hasn't always been such a hospitable place for birds. After the John Hancock building went up in the 1960s, birders noticed dozens of dead warblers, thrushes, cuckoos and other colorful migrants on the sidewalks on some mornings. Dr. William Beecher of the Chicago Academy of Sciences held a dramatic press conference with boxes of birds that the Chicago Audubon Society (CAS) had collected, drawing attention to the fact that illuminated buildings attracted migrating songbirds. Audubon members began calling managers of the city's tallest buildings before migration to ask them to darken the lights.
"The response we got was minimal, with the exception of the Hancock Center," CAS treasurer Jerry Garden recalled.
More buildings went up and mortality remained unacceptably high. As one building manager later put it, "We were cleaning the birds off the roof by the shovelful." The late 1990s were good years for Chicago bird conservation. Mayor Daley developed a vision that a city friendly to nature is more livable for people. The City and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds to recognize Chicago's importance as a stopover for migratory birds. Conservation leaders formed the Wildlife and Nature Sub-committee of the Mayor's Landscape Advisory Task Force.
By lucky chance, the chair of the committee was Linda Day, President of BW Phillips Realty Partners, and a member of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Chicago. When Linda heard about the problem with the birds she knew she could help, and the Lights Out program was born. Teaming with the Chicago Department of the Environment, that first year Day convinced managers of more than a dozen buildings to dim lights for birds.
"Many people didn't understand why the birds were dying," Day said. "Once they learned it was due to the lights, they were happy to help."
Getting the elaborately lighted building at 311 South Wacker, nicknamed "the wedding cake building," to participate in the program took a bit of convincing, but building manager Roy Endsley became one of the program's biggest supporters. In the years since the Lights Out program was born, the number of participating buildings has grown to more than 30-virtually all the Loop's tall buildings.