Birds and Wind Turbines: Facts and Misconceptions

Wind power is a viable alternative energy source in the global transition away from fossil fuels necessary to limit the most destructive effects of anthropogenic climate change. It costs far less to produce than nuclear and coal power, and generation contributes almost no pollutants to the environment, making it a seemingly ideal source of renewable energy (1). This is not to say that wind power is without environmental impacts; birds can collide with wind turbines and their associated infrastructure, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of them in the U.S. annually, according to some estimates (2). Some critics of wind turbines see this side-effect as a clear reason to halt further installation and seek alternatives. But is the threat of wind turbines to avian wildlife that significant?

Photo: Greg Latza

According to most research, the answer is clear: while birds are dying, wind turbines kill very few of them in comparison to other artificial structures. Wind turbines are responsible for only a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of bird deaths caused by buildings, power lines, pesticides, and other human causes (3). It is also estimated that cats kill up to four billion birds annually in the U.S. alone (4). Still, the wind energy sector is growing rapidly, so the rate of turbine-related bird mortality has the potential to rise substantially as well, meaning its worth it to consider ways to reduce the adverse impacts of turbines on birds.

The most effective way the wind energy industry can mitigate harm to birds is through better siting practices (5). An infamous example of poor siting was the Altamont Pass Wind Farm in central California, completed in 1983, when the wind energy sector was at its infancy and there was little research into the impacts of wind turbines on wildlife. The installation was situated in a major migration route for raptors, an estimated 1,100 of which were killed annually by collision with turbines (6). In response to the problem, the old turbines were replaced with newer, more efficient, and slower-moving models, resulting in a 54 percent reduction in raptor deaths as of 2010 (7).

Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are among the raptors most susceptible to collisions with wind turbines.

Today, many wind energy companies partner with conservation groups and state wildlife agencies to site and design wind developments in environmentally responsible ways (8). Although bird mortality cannot be completely avoided, more sensible placement of wind turbines and design tweaks that help prevent collisions have the potential to reduce wind power’s environmental footprint. After all, reducing the impact of wind power developments on birds and other wildlife likely boosts the burgeoning industry’s public image and encourages further investment.

Works Cited:

(1) The Cost of Wind Energy in the U.S. http://www.awea.org/falling-wind-energy-costs#ComparativeCost (accessed Apr 11, 2017).

(2) Loss, S.; Will, T.; Marra, P. Biological Conservation 2013, 168, 201–209.

(3) Randall, T. World’s Top Serial Bird Killers Put Infamous Windmills to Shame https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-04-21/beware-the-blades-of-death-world-s-top-serial-bird-killers- (accessed Apr 11, 2017).

(4) Loss, S.; Will, T.; Marra, P. Nature Communications 2013, 4, 1396.

(5) Drouin, R. For the birds (and the bats): 8 ways wind power companies are trying to prevent deadly collisions http://grist.org/climate-energy/for-the-birds-and-the-bats-8-ways-wind-power-companies-are-trying-to-prevent-deadly-collisions/ (accessed Apr 10, 2017).

(6) Smallwood, K.; Thelander, C. Journal of Wildlife Management 2008, 72, 215–223.

(7) ICF International. Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area Bird Fatality Study; Sacramento, CA, 2010; pp. 30–34.

(8) Anderson, J. Some basic facts about wind power and wildlife http://www.aweablog.org/some-basic-facts-about-wind-power-and-wildlife/ (accessed Apr 10, 2017).

Image Sources:

Green Energy: Can We Save the Planet and Save Birds? http://www.audubon.org/news/green-energy-can-we-save-planet-and-save-birds (accessed Apr 10, 2017).

Beautiful Birds — Golden Eagle Photos http://animalsbirds.com/beautiful-golden-eagle-bird-photos-free-download/ (accessed Apr 10, 2017).