The swarming flock of little 10-gram warblers makes its way south using the stars as navigation. But the October cloud cover hangs low and dense, snuffing out the starlight and forcing the songbirds to travel at reduced altitude.
Ah, but twinkling lights up ahead assure the birds they’re on the right path. Then, disaster, for the illumination is not that of stars but the aircraft-warning lights of hundreds of massive wind turbines. Disoriented and panicked, the birds crash into each other and into the ground. A few even strike the spinning blades. Other confused birds circle the lights until they fall to the ground exhausted. By morning nearly 500 birds lay dead at the Laurel Mountain wind farm near Elkins, W.Va.
It is the largest bird kill to occur at a wind facility, but certainly not the first. Wind turbines kill an estimated 440,000 birds per year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), including an average of 67 golden eagles annually in the San Francisco area alone—a stat to remember the next time a greenie suggests lead ammo harms birds of prey. Most of the deaths involve birds in the act of migration, at night, in low visibility.
Since nobody denies that wind farms do kill quite a few migratory birds, and that by 2030 an estimated 20 percent of U.S. energy will come from wind, it’s critical that those who love birds—and love to hunt birds—understand how it could affect them.
What do wind turbines spell for one of the most popularly hunted migratory birds in America?
“The effect on waterfowl is very interesting,” says Kelly Fuller, wind campaign manager for the American Bird Conservancy. “Unlike other birds, the greatest threat they face doesn’t seem to be collisions, but habitat infringement.
Ducks Unlimited (DU) did a study regarding turbine collisions involving 100 radio-tagged ducks near a North Dakota wind farm. Only one hen mallard struck a turbine.
“The impact of ducks striking turbines is negligible,” says Johann Walker, DU’s director of conservation planning. “Predation has a much greater impact.”
Wind turbines may, however, have an effect on waterfowl reproduction. The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), a vast breeding ground that produces more than half of North America’s waterfowl, is also an area of tremendous wind potential, and the erection of turbines there has increased substantially. A study by the USFWS and DU found that when wetlands are developed for wind energy, breeding duck densities are reduced by an average of 21 percent.
That may sound like a lot, and it does suggest that wind energy would impede nesting waterfowl to a degree, but, says DU, the study area was relatively small and cannot be applied with certainty to the breadth of the PPR.
“The study isn’t comprehensive enough to affect policy, but it does suggest the need for strong, continued dialogue between wind-energy developers and waterfowl managers as to how you can mitigate waterfowl losses when wind energy impacts priority nesting habitat,” says Walker, who was involved in the study. “It also points to the need for further research, because right now we don’t really know the full impact of wind energy on waterfowl, and if we wait for it to sweep the landscape the horse will already be out of the barn.”
While the effects of wind energy on nesting waterfowl require further study, there is a potential silver lining to be found. Some groups, notably the American Bird Conservancy, have criticized the USFWS for allowing wind energy near protected waterfowl easements, which are privately owned but protected in perpetuity from development by government dollars (including Duck Stamp dollars). But Delta Waterfowl senior vice president John Devney says the turbines could actually help add easements to the government inventory, benefitting countless ducks.
“Ninety percent of the ducks in North America nest on private land, so policy decisions have to account for the actual people on the ground in all of this,” Devney says. “Imagine you’re a farmer in Logan County, North Dakota. Your goal is to maximize your property’s earnings potential, and one day the Fish and Wildlife Service comes to you and says, ‘You have a high wetlands density on your property and we want to make it a waterfowl easement.’ If Fish and Wildlife will allow you to have wind turbines on your property as part of the agreement, that’s a lot of financial incentive to preserve your property’s grass and water. If you can’t allow wind energy as part of the easement, maybe you decide it’s more lucrative for you to sell to housing developers, or prospect for oil or drain the water and plant corn.”
While the DU study suggests a 21 percent reduction in the number of breeding pairs in wind-developed areas, it found no decrease in the No. 1 variable affecting the annual growth or decline of waterfowl populations: nest success.
“Even if you have a few less breeding pairs,” says Devney, “a grassland can still produce a lot of ducks with good nest success. But if you lose the grass and water, you won’t just see a 21 percent reduction in breeding pairs—it could be close to 100 percent.”
Such policy and grassland-preservation strategy must be considered by waterfowl conservationists and hunters moving forward. Perhaps the most pragmatic approach recognizes that, like it or not, wind energy will be an increasing fixture on the landscape. Will we fight it, or can we work with waterfowl conservation groups, the USFWS and wind-energy developers to ensure minimal interference with breeding ducks? Can a strategy be developed using the incentives that wind energy provides to actually preserve waterfowl habitat? These are issues upon which hunters must keep a watchful eye.
Wind Energy and Upland Birds
There is much concern regarding wind-energy development and certain species of upland birds, and unfortunately this includes species whose populations are already of gravest concern. Wind development spells trouble for sharptail grouse, prairie chickens and the ever-declining sage grouse.
“Prairie grouse don’t even like nesting near trees, much less a few hundred gigantic turbines,” says Dave Nomsen, vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever.
Are Doves Affected?
“It’s hard to say definitively,” says Kelly Fuller, Wind Campaign Manager for the American Bird Conservancy. “Mourning doves have been listed among the species killed in bird-strike fatalities, but not with enough frequency to suggest a population impact.”