Birds on the Brain: Tackling the question…are wind turbines avian-friendly?

Maybe some of you also envision frustrating conversations like how I do.  (And yes, they’re usually about sustainable agriculture or energy…).  Here’s how this hypothetical conversation in my head normally goes….

[Jill (me)]: Hey America!  How about more renewable electricity generation?  Also, I think we should have some good ol’ carbon policy so that renewables can compete more fairly in the energy market.

[America]: Eh… I don’t know about that.  Renewables are expensive!

[Jill]: Renewables used to be quite expensive, but these days, they can be quite competitive depending on the locale and the source!  In Michigan, the levelized cost of wind is cheaper than coal!

[America]: Ehh…. well wind turbine energy is only available sometimes.  I want electricity all the time.

[Jill]: Wind power could still be backed up by natural gas electricity generation.  Incorporation into the grid is doable.  The DOE even did a study on this.

[America]: But wind turbines kill birds!  Lots of them!  We love birds…

[Jill]: *sounds of frustration*

I should write screenplays, I know.  But perhaps that gets the point across… there are a lot of reasons to incorporate wind power into the grid, but bring up bird deaths to someone who cares about the environment?  It makes you second-guess the technology even just a little bit.  With the beautiful songbirds back in A2, time to tackle this myth.  Here’s what scientific literature has to say:

A National Research Council report outlined how wind turbines compare to other human activities.  Article published in Naturewhich I would consider the end-all, be-all of scientific legitimacy and credibility, outlined similar numbers.  (Side note: these are disturbingly high numbers.)

Collisions:

  • With buildings kill 97-976 million birds
  • With high-tension power lines kill 130 million birds
  • With communication towers kill 4 and 5 million birds
  • With cars kill 80 million birds
  • With wind turbines kill 20-37,000 birds
  • Toxic chemicals kill 72 million birds
  • Cats kill 100 million songbirds

According to this list, wind turbines are the least of bird concerns.  How easy is it to estimate/determine these numbers?  There are certainly questions that would arise about how researchers came up with these numbers.  To add some more weight to this debate, let’s allow some other non-academia perspectives into the conversation.

If there’s one group I’d trust on this issue, it’s a group that knows birds.  And not only knows birds, but loves birds!  Enter at stage right: the Audubon Society.

Just so happens that the Audubon Society’s former president John Flicker released a statement regarding this exact issue.  The Audubon Society supports renewable energy technologies, including wind power, citing growing concerns over global warming and pollution.  I’m impressed that the letter continues, speaking to the complexity of each site and how each wind project siting is a different set of circumstances, characteristics, risks and opportunities.  Even many Audubon Society chapters are actively part of wind-siting processes in their communities.  

Former President John Flicker asserts, “If we don’t find ways to reduce these emissions, far more birds—and people—will be threatened by global warming than by wind turbines. Our challenge is thus to help design and locate wind-power projects that minimize the negative impacts on birds.”

So to summarize: A) wind turbines are becoming more and more avian-friendly, B) climate change poses more of a threat to birds than wind farms could, and C) siting the wind farms correctly and with birds in mind is an essential step to preventing bird deaths.

In my opinion, we will never have a silver bullet when it comes to clean, affordable energy.  Systems like wind and solar power have their own impacts, but pale in comparison to the threats of climate change.

2 comments to Birds on the Brain: Tackling the question…are wind turbines avian-friendly?

  • Bird count and bird surveys can help in saving the endangered species. It is not only important to save them from getting extinct but also to maintain the ecological balance.

  • earthmama

    Wind turbines are creating mortality on birds that aren’t at risk by cats or large buildings – owls, raptors, eagles, etc, These bigger birds are long-lived and have low reproductive rates. Unlike small birds that reproduce quickly and in great numbers, they have no way to compensate for excessive mortality. In addition, wind companies search a fairly small area at the base of turbines for dead birds, and they search them once a week in summer and once every 2 weeks in winter. There are MANY birds killed that are not included in their statistics because they are out of the search range or because predator animals have taken bodies before a search is done. Bats implode quite a bit further out than the search area. So, in total, huge numbers of dead birds are not included in the wind industry’s numbers. As more turbines are put up, that many more birds will be killed. We can put our heads in the sand and say it’s OK – or we can insist wind turbines are sited better AND wind companies do a more complete job of counting, even if it looks bad for them