Why Do Waterbirds Land In Parking Lots?

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Why Do Waterbirds Land In Parking Lots?

To some bird species, car lots mimic water bodies, leading to avian strandings. 

Brought to You by BirdNote®
Published: 11/12/2012

This story comes to you through a partnership between Audubon and BirdNote, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.


One damp evening, you pull into a parking lot and there, on the asphalt, sits a pied-billed grebe, a waterbird that you'd normally see on a lake or pond. The grebe struggles and flaps, but cannot fly. About the same time, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a resident out for a walk finds a Newell's shearwater--another waterbird--stranded on a tennis court.

What's going on here? Well, seabirds like grebes and shearwaters cannot take flight from land. It has to do with their center of gravity and weight. Their feet are set far back on their bodies, and they have long wings. So they must first patter and splash across the surface of the water to build up enough speed to become airborne.

And what is the attraction of a parking lot or tennis court? Well, to a bird flying at night, they resemble bodies of water, especially if their surfaces are wet. Even more so if made to glisten by artificial light. Young birds on their first flights are especially prone to these mistakes.

Stranded seabirds will not survive without a helping hand. To find out how to reach your local bird rescue group, start at BirdNote.org.

Written by Bob Sundstrom
Pied-billed grebe song provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by G.A. Keller.
Ambient recordings by Kessler Productions
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
(c) 2012 Tune In to Nature.org     September 2012     Narrator: Mary McCann



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BirdNote strives to transport listeners out of the daily grind and into the natural world with outstanding audio programming and online content. The stories we tell are rich in sound, imagery, and information - connecting the ways and needs of birds to the lives of listeners.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Response to Patricia Hilliard

Hello, Ms. Hilliard,

Thanks for reading and commenting. I touched base with Daniel Klem Jr., professor of ornithology and conservation biology at Muhlenberg College's Acopian Center for Ornithology. He's done extensive research on bird collisions with glass. Here's what he has to say about the solar panel issue (I've edited it down): "I have been asked and thought about this issue regarding solar panels before. The tennis court or parking lot I judge to be a convincing deception of water because it is continuous, at least to a grebe, loon, duck, or shearwater. But all the solar arrays that I have seen, or which appear in photos sent to me, are broken up enough so that they don't offer (at least to my brain trying to interpret the bird brain) a large, continuous reflected image that appears as a realistic alternative to water. Even close encounters with solar panels that would provide a reflection of sky or upper vegetation is of poor deceptive quality for birds because of the visible internal structure of panels, at least in the ones I have seen. This all said, it is also my understanding and opinion that solar panels are improving in efficiency and changing all the time, so it would not surprise me to learn that a solar panel mimics a mirror reflecting the facing habitat and sky, and if so such a panel would predictably be as deadly as a reflective window."

Julie Leibach
Senior Editor/Web Editor
Audubon Magazine

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