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At Gateway Arch, a Two-Week Blackout Benefits Migrating Birds


The Gateway Arch soaks up the morning sun. NPS photo.

At Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the Gateway Arch floodlights will remain turned off at night during the last two weeks of September. If migrating birds could talk, they’d say “thanks a million!”

Birds that migrate at night -- primarily to avoid predators and strong daytime winds – tend to heavily rely on the stars for navigation. They can become very confused when flying in densely built-up areas with thousands of artificial lights, including many that are high off the ground. The disorienting effect is especially great during rainy or foggy weather, and in the wee hours of the morning when the birds descend from normal migration altitudes.

Cities along flyways, commonly rivers and lakeshores, create severe problems for the night-migrating birds. Within the cities, skyscrapers and tall office buildings pose the greatest hazard because of their greater height and abundant lighting. Some birds that are distracted by lights veer away from the flyways and temporarily lose their way. Some flutter near bright lights until they are exhausted and fall to the ground. Many die in collisions with buildings and brightly lit windows.

Turning off unneeded interior and exterior lights in cities during the peak migration periods can dramatically reduce bird mortality in urban centers. Many cities accordingly participate in “lights out” programs that are sponsored or approved by the Audubon Society and other bird-friendly NGOs. As a bonus, turning off lights, closing curtains, and drawing blinds saves energy.

In cooperation with the Audubon Society and the City of St. Louis, the National Park Service is doing its part by turning off the floodlights of the Gateway Arch each night during the last two weeks of September, a time when the fall migration peaks. The 630-foot high Gateway Arch, the star attraction of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (and the city’s signature landmark) will be floodlit again beginning in October.

Another two-week “lights out” is scheduled at for the Arch next spring when the birds head north to their breeding grounds.

: The Gateway Arch has not always been floodlit. Although completed in 1965, this architectural icon wasn’t equipped with floodlights until 2001. The Arch was at first lit only three hours each night (9:00 p.m. until midnight), but more hours were added after St. Louis residents complained that three hours wasn’t enough.


How wonderful that we are doing something to help migrating birds. I have had readers comment that they have not had any swallows nesting for the first time in 25 years. I have had other readers say swallow numbers are the same. I am in England.

I think we all realise that it is complicated to find out why swallow numbers decline, but a lot of the problems could come when they are migrating. Anything that helps swallows and other migratory birds is a marvellous thing.

Well, that's very nice and saves the NPS electricity. But the arch is surrounded by skyscrapers, Busch stadium, well-lit bridges across the Mississippi and riverboat casinos decked out in neon. Somehow I think this 'light out' is more symbolic than effective.

Kath -

Somehow I think this 'light out' is more symbolic than effective.

Perhaps so; I don't know if the Arch's location right next to the river - and it's height - makes it more of a problem for migrating birds as compared to the other structures you mentioned, or not.

However, you may have hit upon the most important part of the "lights out" gesture at the Arch: the symbolic aspect. It seems very appropriate than a NPS site should set an example for other facilities, not only in terms of the bird migration issue, but for energy conservation.

My attention was caught by this statement in the story:

The Arch was at first lit only three hours each night (9:00 p.m. until midnight), but more hours were added after St. Louis residents complained that three hours wasn’t enough.

It sure seems that turning off all those floodlights by midnight each night would be a reasonable approach in terms of reducing the park's electric bill a bit, and saving some electricity. Yes, I know the amount of energy saved is small in the big scheme of things, but the combination of a lot of similar small steps are one way we can help deal with our nation's energy problem.

From that standpoint, the "symbolic" aspect of the park's decision are valuable indeed.

Jim, some of the citizen complaints about the initial three-hour lighting schedule were actually quite funny. One guy reportedly said that turning the Arch's floodlights on at 9:00 p.m. made little sense to him because he and many other elderly residents of St. Louis were already in bed by then.

Your point is well taken, Kath. There are lots of other distracting lights in the Gateway Arch vicinity, including the very bright lights of a huge hotel/casino complex (Lumiere Place) only a few blocks to the north

There is also a huge new federal building skyscraper a few blocks west of the Arch. It's one of the tallest structures in St. Louis. I wonder if this federal property will be following the lead of the NPS in turning off their lights. Obviously, the stadium can't turn off its lights on game nights, nor can the bridges on any nights and the casino surely won't either.

As a former long-time Park Ranger at JEFF and a native to the area, I think that turning out the lights is more than symbolic. The lights at the Arch are directed UP at the building and, consequently straight into sky, while the other lights in downtown and in most towns is shining down to the ground for our benefit. So by removing the spotlights from the sky, the Park Service should have exactly the results that are intended.

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