Lights out for Larry: The Burden of Brightness on Birds

Two weeks ago, a common blue bird disappeared from the city of San Francisco.

You know the bird.

Credit: Rulenumberone CC License

The one soaring with its upturned belly, migrating through the digital space. I guess its name was Larry.

Back in 2012, when Martin Grasser, Todd Waterbury and Angy Che began designing the twitter logo, Larry, they wanted the bird to feel less like an individual artist’s interpretation, and more like a system of “overlapping circles and connections”.

This blog is about the overlapping circles, where social media meets ego, where visibility and convenience meets moderation and safety, where artificial light meets the dark star-studded sky and migrating birds meet our urban cities. This blog piece is about Larry, the thing that replaced Larry, and a reminder for all of us to encourage building owners and managers to turn off their lights at night.

You see, on Monday, July 24, twitter owner Elon Musk announced a new rebrand for the social media platform. That very same Monday (at least based on SF Department of Building Inspection complaint reports), workers began tearing down Larry from the side of the building headquarters of what is now known as X, without the proper permits from the city of San Francisco.

Apparently, the workers were asked to stop Larry’s removal because; 1. They didn’t have the proper permits to start the process to begin with and… 2. They hadn’t closed off the sidewalk where the unofficial worksite was, thereby putting people in danger… yikes.

Let’s just say, before you go removing birds from their nests, always check with a professional before proceeding with business as usual. (Need a nest survey? Contact your local wildlife biologist here). But I digress.

Credit: Fact Intensity

By Friday, July 28, complaints started flooding the SF Department of Building Inspection tracking system, with residents of San Francisco pointing out a giant flashing sign in the shape of an X at the top of X’s headquarters secured to a temporary ballast, or as one complaint noted “a couple of sandbags”.

But, what does this have to do with real birds? Don’t worry I’m getting there…

Twenty four complaints were filed in all. With most noting how structurally unsound the sign seemed, how the light was too bright at night, how people living in the general vicinity couldn’t sleep, how the flashing strobe-like effect could cause epileptic seizures, that it could potentially distract drivers and cyclists and that it was generally disorienting and nausea inducing. Oh and, again, no proper permits.

And by Monday July 31 , the ‘X’ sign that replaced Larry was in fact removed, probably for most if not all the reasons above. Phew.

After reading through the complaints however, I couldn’t help but think about Larry. And by Larry I mean, birds in general. A flashing strobe light at the top of a large building in the middle of a dense urban city… couldn’t have been good for birds either, especially during migration season.

Several studies have been done to examine the impact of artificial light at night (ALAN) on birds and bird migration. The conclusions range from, increased bird collisions with buildings, decreased sleep duration and intensity, and shifting migration behavior and paths where ALAN is high.

To be sure, there is still a lot more research to be done but the general advice is often the same, keeping the lights off at night is better for birds.

With fall migration on the horizon (August 15 – November 30), hundreds of species of birds will pass through the Bay Area guided at night by the stars in the sky.

Attracted by the bright lights of buildings and disoriented by skyglow (made worse by Karl the San Francisco Fog), many will veer off course, exhausting their energy by circling areas where high levels of artificial light is present. Lower levels of energy may lead to exhaustion, predation and lethal collisions with buildings.

X is not the only company leaving bright lights on at night. As individuals we can make choices to reduce light pollution and together we can try and keep organizations, companies, and institutions accountable to a similar promise under a campaign of Lights Out for Birds.

Solutions range from simply keeping the lights off when unnecessary, planning to keep the lights off during spring and fall bird migration (April-May, August-October), or setting the lights on a timer. If none of these are feasible, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a whole slew of suggestions here.

On top of the risks of light pollution to birds, it must be acknowledged that conserving energy is simply one more action we can take to address climate change, which we know is having dramatic impacts on our bird populations. There are economic benefits too but I’m hoping for the sake of this blog, that the health and safety of wildlife and our planet is enough…

After Elon made the decision to rebrand, he tweeted, or in this case x’d “Soon we shall bid adieu to the twitter brand and, gradually, all the birds,”.

Of course, this quote exists within the context of the other bird-themed branding that twitter was known for (‘tweeting’, feather icons, etc.) that ‘X’ is now axing. Still, the fact remains, and as much as it pains me to say, Elon Musk is right.

However, where Elon is issuing a statement of pride, we are issuing a warning. We’re living in a period of time where birds are turning into x’s and self-interest and corporate greed endanger our care and safety. Meaning, it’s now more important than ever to take collective action to give birds a fighting chance so they can see their journey’s to a proper end.

Speaking of journeys ending, it’s getting late. The sun is setting. Time to close the curtains, and if you can, please…

Turn out the light.


Ryan Nakano is the current Communications Director for Golden Gate Bird Alliance, a freelance journalist, amateur birder, and the author of poetry chapbook I Am Minor published by Nomadic Press. 

Feature Image by We Are Social CC License