Birds and Blades: A Misconception

Zachary Rosemere – Environmental Science

Christopher Pray – Building Contruction Technology

Margaret Upham – Natural Resource Conservation

Thirty stories in the air, atop a cold, steel tower, sits a bladed behemoth calmly swaying. Walking among the giants, one feels the cold hint of the racing winds above and of insignificance when gazing up. The towers stand stalwart and in an unbreakable formation, like soldiers combatting the wind, letting the birds get caught in the crossfire. Ceaselessly, they rotate, acting like a field of fans. Unlike a fan that will push you away when you approach it, the turbines do the opposite. The turbine’s blades rotate ferociously with a wingspan like that of a passenger jet. Though they appear to move slowly, the tips can reach one hundred and seventy miles per hour, which is fast enough to create a cyclonic pull that leads birds to a blunt death (Associated Press, 2013). There are missions and technology to mitigate these ecological consequences. The most notable being better siting practices, shutdown- on-detection, and radar and camera detection of bird groups.  Nonetheless, bird fatalities remain a concern. The mitigative technologies grow slowly, research is always an arduous process, then they take time to implement efficiently (Drouin, 2014).

Wind turbines undeniably influence wildlife, both avian and terrane, from torturous displacement to brutal fatality, but the largest of those is the detriment to bird populations. “A bird struck by a spinning turbine blade is lucky if it dies instantly. All too often, however, the creature is merely maimed and dies a slow, drawn-out death suffering from its ultimately fatal injuries. Other maimed birds don’t die directly from the turbine strike, but end up crippled and thereafter have no escape option from predators” (Taylor, 2015).

Wind turbines kill an estimated 140,000 to 328,000 birds each year (Bryce, 2016).  These numbers cause concern leading to the question of whether wind energy is environmentally friendly after all. The American Wind Wildlife Institute notes that turbines cause disturbances and death for many species of birds from small songbirds to large raptors and other forms of wildlife (American Wind Wildlife Institute, 2014).  If this form of renewable energy results in the killing of many birds and bats, the only solution seems to not allow their placement.  The risk of having a lasting impact on biodiversity is a major concern.

Ecological disturbance, a huge concern when it comes to the construction of wind turbines, compromises biodiversity. Evidence shows displacement events happening, where species relocate their nests or do not return in the following breeding season after turbine construction.  Shaffer and Buhl. (2015) noted that at study locations they found Western meadowlark and Upland Sandpiper show displacement, seen overall and within 100 meters from turbines, causing nesting locations to change. Although these results do not show death, they show how two species of birds are affected; where they are altering their locations and whether they return in following breeding seasons.  These turbine attributed factors create negative impacts on populations.

Understanding the risks turbines pose on bird populations is critical for the further development of wind facilities. By understanding bird displacement, scientists can develop ways to decrease these effects. To protect more bird species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service created a treaty dating back to 1918. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal for anyone to possess, sell, capture, or kill any species protected under this law (US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1998). Research finding that migratory birds are getting killed by wind turbines becomes more than an ecological problem, but a legal problem. It is imperative that in future

turbine construction ways to decrease the risk of death are of utmost importance. Drewitt & Langston (2008), found that the high breeding density of golden eagles at the Altamont Pass Wind Resource area resulted in a high proportion of fatalities caused by collisions with wind turbines. The Altamont Pass, an area that is rich in habitat for migrating raptors, where in some cases these birds are protected results in further complications with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. These possible costly complications are necessary to ensure the protection of our birds (Rose, 2014).

Research conducted by Kolar and Bechard (2016), documented 11% for the red- tailed hawks experienced nest failures in their breeding attempts. These numbers show wind turbines do affect birds. Although this is not a mortality count, it still provides evidence that the wind turbines could result in less fecundity of hawk species. Wind turbine attributed disturbance and death lead people to believe that wind turbines kill most birds, however, red tail hawks are a hawk of little concern. There global breeding population is 2.3 million showing that 11% at this wind facility is not at all significant (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015).

Displacement events, where birds are moving nesting sites or moving to other areas, is concerning when it comes to the overall reproductive success of these species. Displacement reduces fitness or reproductive success of these species. When discussing the Western Meadowlark and the Upland sandpiper displacement events, it seems worrisome, however these events are a slight misconception. The information given appears to show a bad situation, but when looking at the global breeding populations of these birds this find proves to be less significant than previously thought. Western Meadowlarks has a population of 85 million globally (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015). When it comes to Upland sandpiper, although the population is less, at 750,000, their population is stable and they are not within conservation concern currently (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2015).

Several other researchers have come up with data that shows that turbine caused displacement and fatalities are not that significant. One study looking at how wind turbines affect blue wing teal and female mallards produced evidence showing that the cause of death for these birds was related more to predation than to actual collision with turbines. This article provides substantial evidence showing the rarity of wind turbine mortality. Predation accounted for 78.3% of fatalities (Gue et al.,2013). Growing concerns of the dangers of wind turbines still exist, but this understanding of the true effects they induce allows for more effective approaches to keep birds away from turbines.

Understanding wind turbines pose a potential threat to bird species in locations all over the world is crucial to fully conceiving the technology including its implications. However, there remains a misconception when it comes to the nuances of danger these turbines pose to birds, and therefore ecosystems.  Many different anthropogenic structures and predators impact bird populations negatively, but these numbers are largely overlooked. When it comes to the discussion of ecological disturbances and how they harm bird populations people do not think of cars, buildings, power lines, or cats as major dangers. In an article by David Sibley (2010), he states numerous factors that contribute to bird fatalities. A commonly overlooked structure are power lines, that stretch for millions of miles in countries all over the world. The article states that, “tall tension line cables may kill up to 174 million birds per year” (Sibley, 2010, para. 5). With numbers reaching this high it poses a serious threat to many bird populations.

Another obstacle that increases bird fatality rates are the millions of windows in residential and commercial buildings around the world. David Sibley, the author of “Causes of Bird Mortality” (2010) states that “Window strikes – estimated to kill 97 to 976 million birds per year – millions of houses and buildings, with their billions of windows, pose a significant threat to birds. Birds see the natural habitat mirrored in the glass and fly directly into the window, causing injury and, in 50% or more of the cases, death” (Sibley, 2010, para. 3).

Something that critics largely look over is the biggest contributing factor to bird fatalities, are domestic cats. In the article “Wind turbines kill fewer birds than do cats, cell towers.” (2014) the authors talk about the unbelievable amount of birds that are killed, stating that cats kill an estimated 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds per year (Koch, para. 3). In the article “Causes of Bird Mortality” (2010) the authors describe how cats dramatically impact bird populations stating that they have played a role in the extinction of several species. “It is worth noting that house cats have been blamed for the extinction of two species of small mammals in the southeastern United States, and feral cats continue to be a huge problem where they have been introduced on many oceanic islands” (Sibley, 2010, para. 15). Since people are not going to stop owning house cats, they will continue to pose a risk on bird populations. Wind turbines affect bird populations, but when looking at deaths caused by other anthropogenic structures and those of cats, birds will always be threatened if humans and domestic cats, exist. Another major concern is how climate change is harming birds. It is dire to comprehend and make sustainable decisions based on the need to reduce the effects of climate change. Communities must understand the benefits that can come from alternative forms of energy, such as wind energy.

The need for energy and its security is fundamental to our society and to the wellbeing of the environment. When it comes to renewable forms of energy, in many cases, especially wind energy, it’s met with scrutiny and misunderstanding. Wind energy has its flaws like all energy sources, but it provides energy that is nearly self-sufficient. This form of energy does not pollute the air, does not use fossil fuels, and does not produce atmospheric emissions which cause acid rain or greenhouse gas buildup (Advantages and Challenges of Wind Energy).  This form of energy reduces our reliance on other countries when it comes to getting oil to produce electricity. This domestic source is abundant and it is sustainable unlike fossil fuels which eventually will deplete. By increasing the use of renewable energy technologies, such as wind power, reducing the amount of harmful greenhouse gasses expelled into the atmosphere is possible. Another benefit to wind power is its cost efficiency. When it comes to renewable energy sources, wind energy is one of the lowest priced renewable technologies available (Advantages of Wind Energy, 2013). All these benefits are clouded by the risk turbines pose to wildlife.  The increase in construction of wind facilities over time could lead to increases in bird disturbances and death, so it is imperative that the Department of Energy and the wind industry make constant efforts to reduce the risks they pose.

Improved science is necessary to fully evaluate impacts of wind energy facilities on birds and other wildlife. Piorkowski et al. (2012) stated that to accomplish this a standardization of protocols and definitions, new methods and models for assessing the risks, documentation of effects both lethal and sub-lethal, and improved facility siting decisions. Extensive research is being conducted by scientists all over the world to help reduce wildlife disturbance and the deaths of birds and bats. In one study, researchers found that keeping turbines motionless during times of low wind could reduce deaths significantly (Arnett et al., 2009). Their research was looking at bats, but this technology for bat safety can be easily transferred to bird safety. By restricting turbine operation to certain times of the day, seasons, or specific wind conditions, we further reduce fatality potential (Smallwood and Karas. 2009). Turbine shut down deems the most effective technique when birds fly in high collision risk areas, resulting in turbine shut down further reducing fatality (Marques et al., 2014). The use of constant surveillance through radar and camera technologies to effectively shut down turbines must be implemented. One approach is shut down-on-demand which relies on certain criteria, for example, the amount of birds passing and the presence of birds within a certain area. In some cases, to reduce how often turbines are being shut down there are efforts to incorporate audible warnings to emit as a first response (Birdlife International, 2015). Of course, this operation is met with its own set of concerns, does shutting down turbines reduce efficiency?  Research done by De Lucas et al. (2012) found that vulture fatalities decreased with shutdown and the energy production only was reduced by 0.07% at their study location. This evidence shows that shutting down the turbines benefits birds while also posing little threat to efficiency of the power being generated.

It is important to make careful siting decisions where one minimizes collision risks while also minimizes losses of energy production. These ideal criteria are used in future indication of turbine construction (Birdlife International, 2015). With the understanding that a turbine must shut down when birds fly within the area, the concern of reduced energy production and cost efficiency results. The greater use of this technology is that it can further indicate where turbines are placed in the future.

Wind facilities have a relatively short life cycle of 30 years (Marques et al., 2014), so in areas where shutting down turbines is frequent and the risk of decreasing productivity is an issue this information obtained could be used to alter the areas in which turbines are placed. According to Birdlife International (2015), with the use of operational systems such as DTBird, that “detects flying birds in real-time and can respond by carrying out pre-programmed actions if birds are detected within a predefined risk-zone.” (p.19). This program stops a turbine from rotating to reduce turbine attributed bird fatalities. Also, radar systems have been implemented per Birdlife International (2015). Surveillance radars cover areas 360 degrees around the turbine and can record flight paths, directions in which birds are flying, and altitude to better judge when to shut down the turbines and increase efficiency where possible. It is apparent that these technologies to reduce the amount of bird fatalities come with their own set of issues including efficiency problem potential, loss of power, costs, and overall production. Research has been conducted finding minimal risks resulting in a benefit to bird populations where they pass safely (De Lucas et al., 2012). Through careful siting decisions and the use of mitigative technologies the wind industry can change the idea that turbines cause significant bird fatalities.

The misconception that wind turbines cause significant bird fatalities offsets the large net benefits that turbines yield for society which could hinder wind

development, thus the Department of Energy should subsidize the development of new technologies to ensure that the amount of bird fatalities decreases. Bird activist groups often lobby against the development of wind energy. Though the impacts are low, the groups would be much more willing to allow the projects if they knew impacts were lower or a serious effort is being made to reduce them. Lowering the amount of pushback, in this case the bird activist groups, will allow the technology to fill its potential and lead us into a sustainable future.

There will always be reasons against any form of development, where some champion the hushed voice of the natural word and others lead a force against change. There is more than enough substantial evidence to move forward with turbines. By starting with this project, the Department of Energy can shift trust towards future wind energy projects, and the technology in general, by promising reductions on the already minimal bird fatalities. If the industry gains enough support and trust in wind developments, they can erect many more turbines which will drive down costs significantly over time. The growth of the industry is also in accordance with many state initiatives to increase their renewable energy production. The Massachusetts goal, for example, is to reach 15% renewable energy by 2020 while simultaneously mitigating the acceleration of climate change on a global scale (Durkay, 2016)

Further benefits, as an example, can take the form of the EPA “creating a Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP) to reward early investments in wind and solar generation” (EPA, 2016). The EPA claim “seven of the top 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998” and “climate and weather disasters in 2012 cost the American economy more than $100 billion” (2016). The incentive program is part of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the EPA estimates it “will lead to climate and health benefits worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion in 2030, including avoiding 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children” (2016). The consequences of any energy development are never negligible, but it is shown that wind energy’s effects are microscopic when comparing to fossil fuels, bird and bat disturbance versus global disturbance. It is proven that shifting an economy of our size is difficult, but it is beyond doubt that the switch to renewable energy, like wind, is worth all the investment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

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Evan

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