Why Do Birds Sit On Power Lines? (Everything Explained)

Whether you’re driving down a country road, or just staring out your window onto the street, there’s a good chance you’ll see some birds perched on the power lines.

Birdwatchers know that power lines are a great place to look for a variety of perching bird species. So what attracts birds to power lines?

Power lines are a part of the modern landscape, and birds have learned to incorporate them into their daily lives. The wires offer a convenient place for birds to perch, particularly if there are no tall trees or vegetation around. In fact, the presence of power lines in some parts of the world has actually helped some bird species expand their ranges into desert and prairie areas where tall vegetation is hard to find. Birds use power lines for resting, roosting, and even hunting.

Birds are safe from ground predators like cats and coyotes while perched on power lines. With the open view they have, it is also easy for birds like hawks and shrikes to spot their prey on the ground down below.

Continue reading to learn more about why birds sit on power lines.

A large flock of starlings perched on a power line

A large flock of starlings perched on a power line

Why don't birds get shocked when they sit on power lines?

Birds can get shocked by sitting on power lines, but only if they touch two lines at the same time. This is rare for small birds but it does occasionally happen to larger species. Sometimes, two birds sitting on separate wires can be shocked if they make physical contact with one another.

Birds are able to sit on power lines without being shocked because their bodies do not have a different electrical potential from the wire. If they were to touch a wire and the ground, or a wire and the utility pole that touches the ground, however, the electrons in the wire would flow through the bird to the ground, resulting in electrocution.

So a small bird sitting on a single wire is perfectly safe, but we know that birds do get electrocuted on power lines. How does this happen?

Let’s take a look at a few scenarios that can cause electrocution in birds:

  • The bird is in contact with two wires (phase to phase). This is more likely to happen to large birds. It can happen to birds with large wingspans if they attempt to fly between two wires.
  • The bird is in contact with a bird on a different wire. This could happen when a parent bird feeds a begging fledgling, or if a bird feeds its partner during courtship.
  • The bird is in contact with a utility pole and a wire (phase to ground). This is also more likely to happen to larger birds like raptors which often perch on the utility pole, rather than the wire.
Singing Song Thrush perched on a power line

Singing Song Thrush perched on a power line

Can we protect birds from electric shock on power lines?

As of 2006, 59 species of American birds had been recorded as electrocution victims on power lines. This includes more than half of the owl and raptor species in the United States.

Efforts have been made in America for over half a century to protect birds from power lines. One effective method includes increasing the space between wires to prevent birds from simultaneously contacting more than one wire.

Another effective safety measure is to cover exposed energized parts. By installing nesting platforms, it is also possible to discourage birds from nesting on utility poles and other power line infrastructure.

Continue reading to learn more about the birds that sit on power lines.

Larger bird species, such as Merlin falcons, can often be spotted perched on power lines

Larger bird species, such as Merlin falcons, can often be spotted perched on power lines

Which birds sit on power lines?

A variety of birds perch on power lines, although the larger species are more likely to sit on the utility pole rather than the wire. Only birds with grasping feet are able to effectively hold onto the wire, so this excludes many waterbirds.

The following bird species are all commonly seen on the wire of power lines:

  • Doves and pigeons
  • Small raptors like American kestrels
  • Swallows and martins
  • European starlings
  • Bluebirds
  • Loggerhead Shrikes
  • Western Kingbirds
  • Grackles
  • Blackbirds
An American Kestrel perched on a power line

An American Kestrel perched on a power line

Which birds do not sit on power lines?

On a still day and with a little balance, most birds could sit on a power line. The utility pole of a power line provides a more comfortable perch than the wires for some birds, however.

The following species are more often seen perched on utility poles than wires:

  • Larger raptors like hawks, ospreys, and eagles
  • Geese
  • Herons
  • Turkey vultures

Many birds avoid perching in open positions like power lines because they are naturally secretive and shy. This applies to many birds that forage on the ground, within the canopy of trees, or in dense brush.

Some birds of prey like sharp-shinned hawks also avoid hunting from power lines because they rely on stealth and surprise to catch their prey.

Grey heron perched on top of an electricity pole

Grey heron perched on top of an electricity pole

Why do birds gather on power lines?

Birds can gather on power lines for a variety of reasons. It is common for flocks of birds to land on power lines, especially when there are no other perches available in the immediate vicinity. This behavior can be especially common as birds prepare to migrate.

Do birds sleep on power lines?

Larger birds like crows, ravens, and black and turkey vultures often roost on power lines, especially in open habitats where tall vegetation and rocky areas are not available.

In fact, over two thousand ravens (the largest roosting group ever recorded) were observed roosting on power lines in Idaho. Power lines do not offer a whole lot of shelter from wind and rain, but they certainly do provide protection from ground hunting predators like cats, coyotes, and foxes.

Crows roosting on a power line for the night

Crows roosting on a power line for the night

Do birds nest on power lines?

Power line wires are not of much use to nesting birds but utility poles and other power line infrastructure provide sturdy support where many birds choose to build their nests. This has allowed some bird species to populate areas without trees where they would normally nest. These are typically larger bird species like raptors.

The following types of birds have been known to nest on utility poles:

  • Red-tailed hawks
  • Ospreys
  • Golden eagles
  • Crows and ravens
  • Eastern & Western kingbirds
  • Scissor-tailed flycatchers
  • Great blue herons
  • Monk parakeets
  • Great horned owls
An Osprey nesting on a power line

An Osprey nesting on a power line

What do birds on a wire symbolize?

Birds on a wire can symbolize different things to different people. To some, this imagery evokes a sense of freedom, while to others, it can be suggestive of quite the opposite. The titles ‘Bird On The Wire’ and ‘Birds On A Wire’ have been used respectively for a song written by Leonard Cohen in 1969, and a film produced by Rob Cohen in 1990.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do birds sit on power lines facing the same way?

Birds tend to face in the same direction when there is a wind blowing. By facing into the wind, birds can use their streamlined bodies and backward-facing feathers to balance and perch securely. Their feathers would catch the wind and the birds would be blown off the wire if they had their back to the wind.

Why do birds sit on power lines before storms?

There is an old saying that if birds are gathering on wires you can expect rain. It could be possible for a flock of migrating birds to hang back while on migration to avoid a storm. This is more likely to be a coincidental occurrence, however. Modern weather forecasts are probably more reliable, considering that birds can be seen on power lines in all sorts of weather!

Why do birds sit on power lines in winter?

It has been suggested by some that power lines give off small amounts of heat that birds enjoy. It is more likely that birds perch on power lines in winter for the same reasons that they do at other times of the year. The most important reasons include safety, comfort, and visibility when hunting.

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