State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 38 Spring 1986


Birds and Lighthouses

The idea of seeking reports of birds striking lighthouses was not new when the Australian Ornithologists’ Union (it became the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union in 1910) issued its forms in 1903. Forms had first been circulated to lighthouse keepers about twenty years previously by the Zoological Society (Melbourne), requesting that they record dates regarding the movements of birds, chiefly those that struck the glass of the lantern, but the data received was scanty.
In the meantime ornithology in Australia, particularly in field work, had made great strides and it was decided to try again. Early copies of The Emu, journal of the Union, relate the story of this renewed attempt. At the second meeting of the AOU, held in November 1902, Mr Dudley Le Souef, who was Secretary at the time, suggested enlisting the aid of keepers and using lighthouses as observation stations. Because of the difficulties encountered in the distribution of earlier forms and the paucity of information gathered, the Chairman recommended that they be issued through the Marine Board, as this would carry more weight. This recommendation was accepted, Council was authorised to take the necessary steps, and the schedule depicted here was printed.
The State Harbour and Marine Departments were most co-operative in distributing the forms to all Australian lighthouses as well as to those in New Guinea, British New Guinea, Fiji, British North Borneo, Hong Kong, New Caledonia, Java and Japan.
By October 1904 some returns were starting to come in with encouraging results, and it was thought that questions regarding the movement and migration of birds could, in time, be answered. In 1905 a paper presented by Le Souef at the fourth annual meeting of the AOU was published under the title of “Report on the lighthouse schedules” stating that the forms were yielding valuable information on “fly-lines.”
It is apparent that Le Souef was the moving force behind this project and that his handling of it kept it alive. He continued to note reports as they came in and a lengthy article published in 1906 lists those received to date. Others followed.
In 1914 an article entitled “Birds at lighthouses” quoted extracts from the Journal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, England. This dealt with the construction of resting places on lighthouse for the birds, as suggested by a Dutch naturalist. His theory was that most birds perished from fatigue rather than from striking the glass. Unable to alight, dazzled by the glare of the lantern, they flew around until they dropped from weariness. He had tested his theory by erecting perches and found that the number of deaths dropped considerably. Modifying the perches to suit their needs the R.S.B.P. also installed them and likewise was able to record a reduction in the number of fatalities.
Ironically, it was the final notice on this scheme, “Birds at Cape Otway Lighthouse: 1849–1879', published in 1916, which dealt with the earliest records. Perhaps the project was abandoned in the light of growing interest in bird-banding when it was realized that this would yield far more reliable results.


  • The Emu, vols. 2—16 (1903–1916).

Tess Kloot