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Are wind farms affecting the lives of Swainson’s Hawks?

Swainson’s Hawks are native birds of prey to the Texas Panhandle, but the construction of wind turbines in the raptors’ natural environment could be driving them away.

Pantex has teamed up with West Texas A&M and Texas Tech to conduct a study in hopes of finding out the effects wind farms have on the migrating, nesting and hunting habits of the hawks.

“There’s just a ton of factors that we’ll find out, that we’ll be able to give to the wind energy companies and to the government to let them determine how the wind farms are going to be used,” WTAMU Graduate Student Jimmy Walker said.

Walker, along with several other students, is taking part in the study to meet his degree requirements. And though the research began two years ago, all of the students agree there is still a long way to go to get answers.

“I’m excited to get to see all of our GPS data throughout the year when they migrate down to Argentina and come back,” WTAMU Junior Caroline Hanley added. “It’s been really interesting getting to observe all their behaviors with the wind farm.”

A trained Great Horned Owl, which is a natural predator to the Swainson’s Hawk, is placed within the vicinity of a hawk’s nest. As the hawk approaches the owl in hopes of running it off, it is safely captured by the researchers. It is then examined and outfitted with transmitters which relay information about the hawk’s location.

“Hopefully, it’s going to give the people that construct the wind farms better ideas on where to put their wind farms and how to manage them,” Walker pointed out, “whether there’s different spacing, whether they can turn the turbines off at different times of the day to prevent injuries to the hawks.”

Pantex has given researchers access to the 18,000 acres of land owned by the nuclear plant. The Department of Energy is also on board with the project, and Pantex Wildlife Biologist Jim Ray said the study should result in some interesting findings.

“We have a genuine land ethic, wildlife ethic,” he said. “If we’re going to work out here, we want this place to be out here for a long time. And wildlife is recognized as an important part of that. So, we have a big commitment to that.”

According to Walker, eight hawks were given transmitters last year, and 14 have been captured this year.