When Are Birds Actually Fish?

This blog entry was written by Allie Brown, former Clean Energy Advocacy Manager at SACE.

Guest Blog | October 21, 2013 | Energy Policy, Wind

SACE Renewable Energy Manager Simon Mahan contributed to this blogpost. 

If you’ve done even a small amount of research on wind farms, there’s no doubt you’ve heard something about wind farms and birds. And its quite clear that some anti-wind farm activists are going to great lengths to ignore the benefits of wind energy, while exaggerating the harms. In this case, the intent of those activists is to distract from the real threats to birds in their campaign to destroy an American industry – the wind industry. For anti-wind farm activists, birds aren’t birds – they’re red herrings.

For example, communication tower strikes, car impacts, power line electrocution, drowning in cattle stock tanks, pollution and poaching are all serious threats to eagles. Meanwhile, wind farms account for about 2% of all documented sources of human-caused eagle fatalities. Yet, the Associated Press published an article just last month that focused solely on the bird impacts from wind farms; continuing to lead readers down a path of misleading information on wind energy. There are plenty of bigger and more substantial threats to birds than wind farms.

Sibley Guides, Identification of North American Birds and Trees, 2010

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that buildings and windows alone may be responsible for up to 976 million bird deaths annually. Power lines and electrocution could cause another 176 million bird fatalities and up to 50 million birds may be killed each year from communications towers, like those used for radios, television or cellphones. And let’s not forget about our furry friends: a study published by the University of Georgia-Athens suggests nearly one billion birds may be killed annually in the United States by cats.

On the other hand, it has been estimated that for each megawatt of wind power capacity installed, four birds may be killed. Last year, 60,000 megawatts of wind powered our grid (providing 4% of the nation’s electricity), which suggests that 240,000 birds may have been killed as a result.  Even if the United States generate 100% of its electricity from wind energy, data would suggest that wind-related bird deaths would still be just a few percent of total deaths caused by all human activities. To put this all in perspective, a study performed by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “Clearly, bird deaths caused by wind turbines are a minute fraction of the total anthropogenic bird deaths—less than 0.003%…”

The big media hype around wind turbines and bird deaths most likely originated from one of the earliest wind farms in the country, Altamont Pass, California, which was commissioned back in the early 1980s. That development used outdated turbines and was designed poorly, so the threat to birds (particularly raptors) was higher than in other parts of the country. Today modern turbine technology and responsible siting practices has helped to greatly lessen wind energy’s impact on bird populations and places Altamont Pass as a dated and obsolete outlier. Modern turbines are now placed on higher towers and are built using tubular steel, which deters birds from landing. In addition, wind turbines have larger blades that have fewer rotations per minute than older turbines. Through extensive and transparent ecological impact studies, the wind industry works to ensure that wind farms are sited in locations that will have low impacts on migrating birds and endangered species. Even with these lower impact on bird populations, the wind industry continues to work closely with the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audobon Society, the American Wind and Wildlife Institute and other conservation groups to mitigate and ensure minimal impact on wildlife.

Despite the facts, wind energy continues to receive the bulk of negative media attention while other higher avian mortality incidents occur mostly behind the scenes. Just a few weeks ago, 7,500 migrating songbirds died flying over a liquified natural gas facility in Canada. While an expert claims this incident is unusual, the absence of media attention is unsettling and the silence from anti-wind farm activists is noticeable. Perhaps they are more interested in using birds as a red herring instead of actually caring about wildlife conservation.

In reality, wind farms may actually help save more birds than they harm. We’ll cover that issue in a forthcoming blog – so stay tuned!

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