Working for an environmental conservation organization, especially as an educator, often feels like playing a game of whack-a-mole (though, to be clear, Maine Audubon doesn’t encourage anyone to whack moles). Certain topics that we teach about keep coming up no matter how much attention they get. One of those is the question “what kills birds?” Increasingly we’re getting questions and concerns around wind turbines.

One of my favorite things about working at Maine Audubon is that it is a science-based organization. That means that the work we do and decisions we make are based on the studies and science that has been done, so in this column, let’s take a look at the science around birds and terrestrial wind turbines.

First of all, I wanted to address the argument of “one bird killed is one too many.” The harsh reality is that almost everything we do on a daily basis can have some indirect effect on birds. Are you sitting in a building right now? Statistically, five birds have died from colliding with a building (generally, the building’s windows) for every building in the U.S., just this year. Do you own a car? About 1.25 birds per vehicle in the U.S. get struck by an automobile each year. Reading this online? Collisions or electrocutions from power lines and communication towers are next on the list of anthropogenic causes of mortality in birds, after buildings and cars. I’ll quickly acknowledge that these “five per building” and “1.25 per car” numbers are back-of-the-napkin averages based on a report by Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra in 2015, titled Direct Mortality of Birds from Anthropogenic Causes. I provide this context, rather than the “988 million bird deaths per building in the U.S.” figure because we tend to have a psychic numbing to large numbers.

With that context, it shouldn’t be a surprise that wind turbines do kill birds. From the 2015 report, an estimated 573,000 birds are killed in the U.S. each year from terrestrial wind turbines. Keep in mind that is 1/10th of the birds that die just from electrocutions from power lines, and less than 1/300th of all the birds that die from being hit by vehicles on the road. This is largely thanks to work done to put turbines in areas where they will have the least impact on birds. There are unfortunately cases where turbines were erected in areas, especially in western states, where species like golden eagles have died from striking turbines. However, thanks to laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, cases like those ended in $8 million in fines and restitution from the developers. Those funds and others are being used to develop avoidance and mitigation strategies to reduce the threat of turbines.

In Maine, wind developers have turned their focus to the deep waters in the Gulf of Maine, where there are strong, consistent winds and fewer birds overall. When properly sited, wind turbines will have very little impact on birds, and will do more good by slowing climate change by generating electricity through a renewable source rather than burning fossil fuels.

By now I’m sure someone is cracking their knuckles and typing away at the keyboard to write in and spread some FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) about wind energy. I’ll see you in the comments! To be clear, climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity. I do have faith that our planet, and at least most of the wildlife on it, will survive long after we humans are gone but we do have a responsibility to reduce our impact on the living things here now. Slowing human-caused climate change is the most important thing we can do.

I’m worried that by now you’re feeling the psychic numbing I mentioned before: how can we possibly save these birds from climate change? Perhaps this Mother Teresa quote can aid us: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” In thinking about how to help birds, this is one thing I’d like anyone reading this article to take away: wind turbines are not the problem. In the short term, the best thing you can do to help birds is keep cats indoors. The less than 600,000 birds that die annually from wind turbines is so immaterial compared to the more than two billion birds that are killed by outdoor cats in the U.S.. Our pet cats are non-native species that we humans brought to North America with us, and we have a responsibility to keep those cats indoors (or outdoors with supervision) because they are absolutely devastating our bird (and small mammal and reptile/amphibian) populations.

There is a great resource, a website called 3 Billions Birds Gone, which I hope will help equip people with knowledge and action steps. Check it out and see what you can do to help our birds and our planet.

Have you got a nature question of your own? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Th


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