This article is part of our “CleanTechnica Answer Box” collection. In this collection of articles, we respond to dozens of common anti-cleantech myths.
Myth: bird deaths are an extreme problem of wind power, with the implication being wind power is worse for birds than dirty energy sources.
Short answer: Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants actually cause more bird deaths than wind power. They also threaten the very ecosystems bird species rely on. Furthermore, bird deaths from wind turbines have dropped considerably (per kWh) as the technology has matured, and annual bird death totals from cats, windows, and vehicles each dwarf annual bird death totals from wind power.
Wind power critics sometimes try to say that this form of clean, renewable energy is bogus because a number of bird deaths result each year from collisions with wind turbines and towers.
What they fail to mention is the context, so they leave out certain very key facts.
The number of birds killed by wind turbines is relatively tiny. “Collisions with wind turbines account for about one-tenth of a percent of all ‘unnatural’ bird deaths in the United States each year. And of all bird deaths, 30 percent are due to natural causes, like baby birds falling from nests,” according to AWEA.
Billions of birds are killed each year by domestic cats. Yes, that’s billions with a b. Collisions with communications towers kill about 6.5 million birds each year; this is about 18 times more than wind power technology. Electrocutions kill about 5.4 million.
Furthermore, nuclear power plants and fossil-fuel plants kill far more birds than wind power. “Within the uncertainties of the data used, the estimate means that wind farm-related avian fatalities equated to approximately 46,000 birds in the United States in 2009, but nuclear power plants killed about 460,000 and fossil-fueled power plants 24 million,” according to a paper published by Benjamin K. Sovacool titled “The Avian and Wildlife Costs of Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power.”
Cooling conventional power plants also kills billions of fish each year, in addition to birds. “The EPA says it also tracks other species of fish, and its overall figure for year-old-equivalent fish lost in power-plant cooling systems is 3.5 billion per year,” according to an Associated Press article in 2008.
One figure that was published a while back may have exaggerated the number of annual bird deaths due to wind power. It was a range that reached 573,000 at the top. However, that figure was called into doubt by a subsequent study, which pointed out that there are fewer deaths now, as technology has evolved. “Prior studies estimate between 10,000 and 573,000 fatal bird collisions with US wind turbines annually; however, these studies do not differentiate between turbines with a monopole tower and those with a lattice tower, the former of which now comprise the vast majority of all US wind turbines and the latter of which are largely being de-commissioned.”
The same researchers concluded that a more accurate estimated range was 140,000 to 328,000 deaths per year due to wind power tower and turbine collisions. Of course these deaths are regrettable, and in an ideal world they would not happen, but again, to continue to round out the full context of annual bird deaths, we need have some perspective.
Back to other sources of bird deaths, in addition to deaths caused by domestic cats, collisions with glass in buildings is a top cause. “Bird mortality from window collisions in the US is estimated to be between 365 million to 988 million birds annually.” If we compare the top end of the researchers’ estimate for wind power bird deaths, which is 328,000 per year, with the peak from the Fish and Wildlife Service for building collisions, which is 988 million, we see that building collisions result in well over 2,000 times more bird deaths.
Vehicle collisions are also one of the top causes of bird mortality. A recent study estimated that between 89 million and 340 million birds die annually in vehicle collisions on US roads. Again, if we take the top figure for each type of bird death, we see that vehicle collisions caused several hundred times more deaths. Poisoning also kills about 72 million.
Collisions with utility lines are another top cause of deaths. “It is currently estimated that between 8 million and 57 million birds are killed in the United States annually from collisions with electric utility lines,” US Fish & Wildlife Services (FWS) states.
Oil pits kill about 500,000 to 1 million US birds per year, according to the FWS. “An estimated 500,000 to 1 million birds are killed annually in oil pits and evaporation ponds. In one study, 51 % of all birds found at oil and gas facilities were in heater-treaters, 30% in various pits, 4% in wastewater ponds, 4% tanks and trays, and 1% spills.”
The number of birds lost each year to wind turbine collisions is tiny, but what is a major cause of death for the portion that are migratory? If you are aware of bird conservation issues, you probably know what it is: habitat loss. “Loss, degradation and fragmentation of important migratory bird habitat have been identified as potentially the largest individual threat to migratory birds.”
Habitat degradation is linked to climate change, which has already had a negative impact on many species, including many species of birds. “Using this model, we estimated that 47 per cent of terrestrial [non-flying] threatened mammals (out of 873 species) and 23.4 percent of threatened birds (out of 1,272 species) may have already been negatively impacted by climate change in at least part of their distribution.”
Obviously, clean, renewable energy is part of the solution for combating climate change and therefore is reducing its impacts. Thus, its overall effect is positive for animals and birds.
In a single year, US hunters killed about 19 million geese and ducks.
Wind power critics who point to the relatively tiny number of bird deaths caused by turbines and towers and fail to mention the true top causes of bird deaths are deliberately being disingenuous. They don’t know the facts or are omitting them to try to dismiss wind power even though it’s better for birds than fossil fuels and nuclear.
This is grisly stuff to consider, but 8.5 billion chickens were killed in 2014 for consumption in America. Each year, about 240 million turkeys are killed too. Somehow, that is “okay,” but they are also birds and simply by making different consumer choices many of their lives could be spared. Tens of millions of ducks are raised for eating too.
Do you think any of the wind power critics abstain from eating chicken, turkey, ducks and geese? Doesn’t seem likely, does it? It seems clear enough that they don’t care about birds much, if at all, and are merely attempting to make wind power look bad.
The “story” of wind turbines causing bird deaths might have begun with the huge wind power farm at Altamont in California. It was built in the early 1980s and used old-style wind turbines with a lattice support structure, smaller turbines, and shorter towers. This type reportedly kills more birds, and at Altamont their presence resulted in the deaths of many raptors, including some golden eagles. However, hundreds of the old-style turbines are being taken down and the site is being re-powered with the taller monopole kind with slower-moving blades. (At the blade tips, the wind speed is similar to the smaller turbines, but it is slower elsewhere.)
The idea or hope is that the new, larger turbines will kill fewer birds, although at this time, whether or not that is absolutely the case seems to be unclear.
According to a fact sheet created by the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative, most of the birds that are killed by collisions with wind turbines are songbirds. Raptors in areas with wind power farms are at some risk, but the number of fatalities is very small. “Studies have indicated that relatively low raptor (e.g., hawks, eagles) fatality rates exist at most wind energy developments with the exception of some facilities in parts of California (Figure 1, page 3). All developments studied have reported fewer than 14 bird (all species combined) fatalities per nameplate MW per year, and most have reported less than 4 fatalities per MW per year (Figure 2, page 3). Although several developments have reported relatively numerous bat fatalities, most studies have reported low rates of such bat fatalities (Figure 3, page 3). However, much uncertainty exists on the geographic distribution and causes of bat fatalities (see discussion under direct mortality).”
To summarize the wind power and bird death situations simply, it is clear that the number of bird deaths caused by this form of clean, renewable energy is relatively very small. This is not to say that those deaths don’t matter — they do, and there might be some strategies and/or new technologies to apply to reduce or perhaps even solve this problem some day. The number of birds that die from other causes, including fossil and nuclear energy sources, is vastly larger, but wind power critics are not going to mention this fact because it would undermine or negate their flimsy rhetoric.
Images: Wind turbines at night via American Public Power Association, wind farm via Karsten Würth (@inf1783), highway traffic via Afifi Zulkifle, and older Altamont turbines via P0lyglut (some rights reserved)