|Under the glow of stadium lights, fans cheered for the Kauai Red Raiders high school football team. (Marco Garcia/Associated Press)|
Birds shut down Friday night lights
Football teams in Hawaii shifting to Saturday games
KAPAA, Hawaii — The tradition of Friday night football on the island of Kauai has been disrupted by an unusual culprit: Young seabirds migrating to the ocean are mistaking stadium lights for the moon and stars, causing them to become disoriented, fall from the sky, and be eaten by cats.
School officials canceled Friday night football for almost all of the season on Kauai and moved the games to Saturday afternoon, angering residents who are upset that their beloved fall tradition has been thwarted because of birds.
They have been showing up to games wearing T-shirts that disparage the policy, and occasionally voicing their displeasure from the stands during games.
“Because we’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we don’t have much to offer our kids. On a Friday night, this is what our kids would look forward to,’’ said Lori Koga, whose 17-year-old son is a Kauai High School linebacker and running back. “And then they took that away from us.’’
At issue is a bird called the Newell’s shearwater, which numbered about 80,000 in the mid-1990s. Its population has plunged 75 percent in recent years as Kauai has grown in size and has added more lights that confuse the birds.
The birds take their first flight a few months after hatching from ground nests in Kauai’s wet mountain forests. These fledglings, some still with down feathers, are prone to mistaking the bright lights at sports fields, hotels, parking lots, and other places for the moon and stars, leading them to repeatedly fly around in circles.
They become exhausted and eventually drop to the ground, where they’re often attacked by cats or hit by cars unless they are rescued by volunteers. The species is also threatened by pigs and goats that trample on their nests.
“When they hit the ground, it’s usually very hard for them to take off. They need a breeze or they need a place to launch from,’’ said Scott Fretz, the state’s wildlife program manager. “They’re just sitting ducks for the cats that are all over the place.’’
The problem for football is that fledglings take flight between Sept. 15 and Dec. 15 each year — smack in the middle of the season.
Most football games are now played on Saturday afternoons, except for days closest to the full moon. Schools allow later games on those days because birds are less likely to be confused by artificial lights.
The switch to Saturday games has upended a revered tradition on Kauai, an island once dominated by sugar cane fields that is now known primarily for its relaxed, breathtaking tropical resorts.
The small community of about 60,000 doesn’t have concert halls, amusement parks, or any college teams for people to enjoy, making high school football the only show in town.
Football attendance has dropped, as some parents have to work during game hours or take player siblings to different sports activities. Saturday games have drawn an average of 1,173 people so far this season — about 200 fewer than last year’s season average. Some fans don’t want to sit in the sun and players complain about the brutal daytime heat.
Kapaa High’s head football coach, Kelii Morgado, has taken steps to prevent heatstroke during day games, including telling his players to drink lots of water starting three days before. When players come off the field, they’re sponged with ice water.
The Kauai Interscholastic Federation changed the schedule because Kauai County was facing possible federal prosecution for failing to protect seabirds.
The US Justice Department said federal wildlife officials notified the county in 2005 its lighting was hurting the birds, in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.