Starry Skies are for the Birds!

Starry Skies aren’t just for us. Many animals and pollinators need dark nights to thrive, but migrating bird species are some of the most impacted. Read on to find out why, and then get your Save Starry Skies plate; do it for the birds!

First, take a minute to appreciate the amazing feat that migrating birds complete every year. The Wilson’s Phalarope, which can be found in salt marshes in the Great Basin, travels to South America annually, some going all the way to Tierra del Fuego, which is 6,000 miles from Nevada! How do they do it? Birds have several internal ‘compasses’ that point them in the right direction, including a sun compass and a magnetic compass. But since most bird species migrate at night, the stars are an important part of bird GPS. 

Wilson's Phalarope walks along a shoreline.

One scientist trying to understand birds' starry sky abilities conducted a series of planetarium experiments in the 1970s. Stephen Emlen knew that migrating songbirds could reliably orient themselves using the stars, but wasn’t sure how, so, naturally, he took fifteen Indigo Buntings to the nearby planetarium each night. By adding and deleting stars from the planetarium’s ‘sky,’ he found that the birds weren’t using any particular constellation, but instead the apparent rotation of the constellations around the north star. When Emlen reformatted the stars to rotate around a different point in the night sky, the birds changed their direction. To find their way, these tiny feathered stargazers observed the movement of starry skies.

Indigo Bunting perched on a wagon.

When bright city lights block out the night skies, migrating birds become disoriented. They can become ‘trapped’ in bright lights and waste precious energy flying aimlessly. Exhausted, some will be killed by various urban threats such as cars or predators, while others fly directly into brightly lit windows and die. In one extraordinary incident, almost 1,000 migrating birds were killed in a single night by colliding with a skyscraper in Chicago.

The good news is, Nevada’s dark skies provide many refuges for migrating birds. Our state is part of the Pacific Flyway, a migration path for birds that travel down the west coast to South America and back each year. You can see them, and some dark skies, too, at places like the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, Great Basin National Park, and more! Starry skies make Nevada shine, to birds and to the people who love them.