Do Wind Turbines Kill Birds? Causes of Declining Bird Populations Explored

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What about the birds?

A common concern with wind turbines is their impact on birds.  While declining bird populations are a cause for concern, studies by conservation groups have shown that wind power is a negligible contributor, causing less than 0.005% of bird deaths.

In fact, until 100% of our energy production comes from renewable sources, each wind turbine constructed results in a net gain for bird populations as energy produced from oil, gas, or coal causes over 17 times more bird deaths per kilowatt than wind does due to pollution and habitat disruption.  Converting all US energy production from fossil fuels to wind would save 14 million birds a year.

 

Major Causes of Bird Population Decline

Bird populations have been steadily declining in the United States over the last 50 years.  Although over 10 billion birds still nest in our country, biologist Melanie Driscoll, from the National Audubon Society, estimates that at least 5 billion birds die in the US each year, faster than they can be replaced.

Causes of bird deaths
State of the Birds report

Loss of habitat

The largest source of bird declines is habitat loss due to both climate change and the conversion of land for agricultural, logging, mining, or residential use.  Between land conversion and climate change, statistical analysis suggests that climate change may have a larger impact on migratory birds, although both are major contributors to population decline.

Human action

Direct human action results in many additional bird deaths.  Outdoor cats account for between 1.4 to 3.7 billion bird deaths each year.  Data from the StateofBirds.org, a report compiled by the nation’s top bird scientists, collisions with buildings are estimated to kill 599 million birds a year, and automobiles account for another 200 million.

Wind turbines & energy

Wind power on the other hand, does not cause any significant harm bird to populations.  Studies estimate that between 140,000 and 328,000 birds die each year due to collisions with wind turbines including this research compiled by researchers from the Smithsonian, Okahoma State University and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.   While those numbers may sound large, and certainly the ideal number of bird deaths due to wind turbines would be zero, they comprise a tiny fraction (<0.005%) of annual bird deaths.

How Wind Turbines Help Birds

Still, wind turbines do kill some birds, so would birds be better off without wind turbines?  Actually no.  Realistically, energy has to be produced somehow, and less wind won’t mean more solar panels, which are very bird friendly, it will mean more coal and gas, which are not.

Wind and solar cooperate, not compete, in our transition to renewables.  Solar performs best in sunny areas and in summer.  Wind performs best in windy areas and in winter.  We need all we can get of both, plus hydro and geothermal power, to eventually reach the point where the United States generates 100% of its energy from renewable sources.  Whenever we find a location where it makes economic sense to install another solar panel or build another wind turbine we should do so.

habitat removal
Mining via habitat removal

Meanwhile, any energy that we don’t produce from renewable sources will be produced by oil, gas, and coal plants instead, which kill far more birds than wind turbines do.  An analysis by the Danish Center for Energy Technologies concluded that oil, gas, and coal kill about 5.2 birds per GWh produced (enough to power 1,000 homes for a year) while wind kills about 0.3 birds per GWh produced.  Wind is over 17 times safer for birds.  This isn’t surprising when you consider that wind doesn’t need to be mined, drilled, piped, or shipped, all of which disrupt habitats and generate pollution.

 

wind trubines
Wind turbines integrated into the landscape.

Due to the dangers of fossil fuels, blocking a community wind farm that would generate 20 GWh of energy a year to save birds is counterproductive.  The facility would have killed about 120 birds over its 20-year life, but it also would have prevented about 2,080 bird deaths due to oil, gas, and coal: a significant net gain for bird populations.  Reducing the number of wind turbines that are installed harms more birds, not fewer.

If all fossil fuel based energy production was replaced with wind turbines today, we’d save about 14 million birds a year.  Each GWh produced by wind instead of oil, gas, or coal saves about 4.9 birds and the United States produces over 4m GWh a year, 69% of which was from oil, gas, and coal. Overall birds would be helped, not harmed, by increasing wind energy production.

So when you see wind turbines there is no need to be worried that birds are being harmed.  Instead, each of those turbines is helping bird populations by reducing the amount of oil, gas, and coal that we use.  Just like humans, birds benefit from cleaner environments.

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