Wind turbines are a generally popular and effective means to produce sustainable energy, but they’re not without their critics. One counterargument to mass wind turbine adoption is their effect on bird populations, so let’s answer the question: do wind turbines kill birds?
Wind turbines are responsible for bird deaths. In the USA, three major studies estimate bird deaths from wind turbines, placing the annual death toll at 100,000 to 450,000. In the UK, some 10,000 to 100,000 birds are killed by wind turbines annually.
These figures are not totally negligible, but they pale in comparison to how many birds are killed by collisions with buildings (around 1 billion bird deaths per year in the US alone) and cats (around 1 to 4 billion bird deaths in the US alone).
That means wind turbines kill just 1/2500 to 1/10,000 of the number of birds killed by cats and buildings. So overall, wind turbines are not seen as a significant threat to bird life, so long as efforts are made to keep turbines away from migratory routes and other areas that feature high concentrations of bird life.
However, there is some concern amongst conservation groups that the rampant development of mass wind farms might see these figures climb dramatically in the future.
Read on to learn more about how wind turbines impact bird life.
Wind Turbines do pose a threat to birds, and do result in at least hundreds of thousands of deaths each year
There are two situations where wind turbines kill birds:
While a wind turbine’s blades turn, birds are likely unable to see it as an obstruction. While many birds have powerful eyes that are many times stronger than a human’s eyes, they simply don’t learn that wind turbines are a structure worth avoiding. Moreover, bird vision is relatively flat and lacks depth perception.
Wind turbines are a particular threat to soaring birds of prey such as Peregrine and Prairie Falcons, Golden and Bald eagles, Red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, and kestrels, as these birds spend much of their day flying and scanning the ground in pursuit of prey.
A flock of gulls heading towards a wind turbine
There are a few studies estimating bird mortality resulting from wind turbines. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are around 140,000 and 500,000 turbine-related bird deaths in the US each year. Studies in 2013 and 2014 provide similar estimates, but it’s agreed that the true figure today is probably higher, as there are more wind farms.
Globally, it’s predicted that bird deaths resulting from wind turbines will increase to over 2 million per year by 2050. But, again, this figure is hotly debated, as a study from Spain suggested that turbine-related deaths in Spain alone likely exceeded 6 to 18 million per year.
Several other studies measured bird deaths per turbine, with findings ranging between 40 and 800 or so birds. There is huge variation in the data, and it remains extremely difficult to tell exactly how menacing turbines are for bird populations.
Right now, turbine-related bird deaths are just a tiny percentage of those inflicted by domestic cats and building collisions. Domestic cats are estimated to kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds globally each year. Even so, it’s essential to develop techniques to reduce the impact of wind turbines on bird life and the environment in general.
Common Buzzard flying close to a wind turbine
Offshore wind turbines are likely to threaten different populations of birds than mainland or onshore wind turbines. This is because many seabirds and migratory birds regularly pass through areas that are ideal for wind power, especially in the upper Northern Hemisphere.
Some evidence suggests that offshore wind turbines are safer for birds, especially when placed to avoid typical migratory routes.
Migratory geese flying close to wind turbines during sunset
There are a few methods to limit turbine-related bird deaths. The most obvious solution is choosing positions that don’t conflict with significant bird populations. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has developed guidance for wind energy and turbine placement, helping installers avoid conservation areas.
Energy companies also work with conservationists and ecologists to minimize environmental impacts. This doesn’t just apply to the turbines but to the power lines that feed wind-generated power back to the grid.
Another innovative method for reducing bird deaths is detecting incoming birds and then shutting turbines off so they can pass through safely. AI sensors equipped with computer vision are trained to detect incoming birds from a safe distance and send alerts to human teams to take action.
Additionally, turbine manufacturers are installing sonic deterrents on the turbines to ward away birds using ultrasonic frequencies.
Two other experimental prevention methods are painting turbines with UV paint and even painting them purple. The issue is far from solved, and wind turbines remain fairly controversial where wildlife conservation is concerned.
However, it’s also crucial to consider the environmental impacts of alternatives to wind power, as wind power rates as one of the most reliable alternatives to fossil fuels and non-renewable energy.
Grey Heron in flight near to a wind turbine
Many bird populations are affected by wind turbines, depending on where they’re installed. Wind turbines are typically installed in very windy, flat hills in upload areas - birds that occupy these sorts of environments are most vulnerable.
While birds that primarily live in urban, woodland, or forest areas may avoid areas where wind turbines are installed, any low-flying migratory bird might encounter one.
Some of the worst affected birds are birds of prey like eagles, hawks, and falcons, as these birds typically hover above the ground in search of prey and often prefer clear sight of the ground - which favors flat areas where wind turbines are installed.
A golden eagle flying close to a wind turbine
Birds of prey are some of the most vulnerable to wind turbines, as they often spend much of their day soaring above the ground in pursuit of prey.
In the USA, Golden and Bald eagles, falcons, kites, kestrels, and hawks are among the most-threatened birds by wind turbines. Additionally, because these birds typically raise a small number of chicks, damage to their populations is difficult to recover from.
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