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Migratory bird paths limit wind power plan

PORTAGE – A new debate has popped up between members of city government and the school board: Birds.

Where they fly, to be more precise.

And while members from each group have presented clear answers to the question, experts say it’s not so well defined.

The issue came up at a Portage Township School Board discussion meeting, when member Tom Pappas mentioned an idea to build windmills to help offset the schools’ $2 million-a-year energy costs.

Mayor Olga Velazquez, who attended the meeting, stood up and informed the board that she had looked into the idea and had been told the city lay in a migratory bird flyway – meaning the path that birds use when traveling north and south during the change of seasons. One of the concerns regarding windmills is that they can kill birds that do not see the blades.

At the next meeting a week later, Pappas said that no, the city was not in a flyway.

The actual answer is not so precise.

Kenneth Brock, a retired Indiana University Northwest professor who has studied birds in the area, said that really, anywhere is a bird flyway.

“The old concept of flyways is probably greatly exaggerated,” he said. “Birds pretty much fly anywhere.”

They do, though, love to congregate on the shores of Lake Michigan, including the shores in Portage. It provides a nice resting place and lots of food for birds traveling usually thousands of miles. It also provides a good visual north-south feature for the birds to follow, Brock said.

“So a windmill in that area would probably have devastating effects,” he said.

That area, however, extends a mile south of the lakeshore at most, Brock said. South of that area sees a much less concentrated flow of birds.

Of course, some people think the boundary should be bigger than a mile. Carolyn Marsh, a local environmentalist and bird watcher, would prefer to give the birds more breathing room, she said.

“They need all the space they can get,” she said.

Marsh recommended at least 20 miles, although she did say the Bird Conservation Network’s recommendation was about three miles from the shoreline.

Regardless of whether such a wide area is needed, concerns do remain. Brock pointed out that many of the songbirds fly at night, so they might not see the blades. Then again, windmills meant to serve just an individual group, such as the schools, aren’t nearly as large as the ones found on industrial wind farms.

“It’s probably something that should be researched before someone does it,” he said.

By Teresa Auch
Post-Tribune staff writer


9 June 2008