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For the birds: Why many Houston skyscrapers are going dark at night

Billions of migrating birds pass through Texas each spring to head north for the winter mating season.

HOUSTON — If you've passed through downtown Houston after sunset the last few weeks, you may have noticed that many of the skyscrapers had turned their lights off. 

It's part of the annual Lights Out for Birds program to protect billions of birds that head north for the winter.

An estimated two billion birds migrate through the Texas each spring and many pass over the Upper Texas Coast and Houston. Most North American migratory birds travel at night, and lights on buildings can attract and disorient them. 

How Lights Out for Birds started

It was a heartbreaking scene in Galveston back in the spring of 2017 when hundreds of birds were found dead on the island. Nearly 400 migratory birds died when a combination of weather and the allure of lights caused them to crash into the American National Building on 20th Street.

"Just the sheer number of birds was astounding," said Kathy Sweezey with Houston Audubon.

The devastating sight spurred the building to take action.

RELATED: Hundreds of birds found dead in Galveston

"They actually reached out to Houston Audubon, asking us how can we prevent this from happening again," Sweezey said.

Houston Audubon's Lights Out program took flight and they asked building owners and residents to turn off their lights when migratory birds are flying through. And It worked.

"So that next year, when it came to migration season, again, American National was able to turn out their lights and thankfully prevent some collisions from happening again," Sweezey said.

More than 25,000 island residents signed a petition pledging to do their part to save the birds.

Other cities in the area, including League City, now take part in the program.

RELATED: Houston-area cities ask businesses and residents to go 'Lights Out' for birds

Idea spreads to Houston

In a 2019 study, Houston was found to be the second most dangerous city in the country for migrating birds in terms of light pollution because there are so many tall buildings.

Last year, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Lights Out Nights from April 19 through mid-May.  City Hall led the way by turning off its lights and several Houston skyscrapers now take part. 

The migration continues through June 15, and residents can do their part by turning their lights off too. 

You don't have to go completely dark, according to the experts.

"if you have covers that you can put on your lights to point the lights down instead of straight up into the sky, that can make a big difference," Sweezey suggested.

Thanks to the success of the program across Southeast Texas, the campaign has taken off statewide. 

Credit: KHOU 11