Many years ago work places wanting to avoid arguments banned discussion of sex, politics and religion. Today, if you wanted to avoid arguments in the work place, I think you’d be wise to add wind farms to that list. It’s a subject that people feel passionately about.
There are those who support a source of fossil-free renewable energy. There are those who think the turbines are beautiful, and those who believe they’re a blight on the landscape. There are those who claim adverse health effects from extended exposure to the turbines. There are those who complain about the noise. And of course there are politicians who are only too pleased to jump into this controversy and milk it for whatever it’s worth. And then there are birders—of which I am one. Most of us are conflicted. We desperately want to support clean, green energy sources, but we cannot accept any more man made structures that kill and injure our birdlife.
Wind turbines do kill birds. Even their most passionate advocates concede that. They argue that (a) if turbines are placed appropriately only an extremely small number of birds are killed and (b) these deaths can be compensated by saving other birds elsewhere.
It stands to reason that if you build a wind turbine in a bird’s flight path, the result will be lethal. If birds maintain a predictable flight path, such as an annual migration route, then it should be possible to avoid that flight path. But what if you want to build your wind farm between a bird’s breeding place and its regular hunting grounds? That is more difficult.
In Australia, I believe that the birds most affected by wind turbines are raptors—birds of prey—and these birds often require an enormous range. In some locations a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles needs a hunting range of 100 square kilometres. That makes finding an appropriate place for a wind farm difficult, to say the least. The Tasmanian subspecies of Wedge-tailed Eagle is classified as vulnerable, and is of concern at every Tasmanian wind farm.
I have heard that in America, 90 per cent of birds killed by wind farms are song birds, and that raptors only comprise ten per cent. I don’t know whether this is true or not. Raptors are visible and controversial. Wind farm proponents want to play down raptor deaths because of the experience at the Altamont Pass wind farm.
The Altamont Pass wind farm in northern California was established in 1982 and has 5,400 wind turbines. Sadly, it was constructed in a major raptor migration corridor with the highest concentration of Golden Eagles in North America. Consequently, the turbines killed from 880 to 1,300 raptors each year, mainly Burrowing Owls and Red-tailed Hawks, but also up to 116 Golden Eagles. Some reports say that 4,700 birds were killed annually at Altamont Pass, but I have chosen to use the more conservative figures provided by the San Francisco Center for Biological Diversity. Whatever the actual figure was, in my view, the wind farm should have been closed down immediately. It was not. Instead, the operators introduced a rodent control program, presumably on the basis that without this food source the raptors would not be so prevalent. However, the rodent control program threatened endangered species of foxes, frogs and salamanders and actually increased the risk to birds of prey.
I understand that the turbines at Altamont Pass are slowly being replaced by more modern bird-friendly models. I suspect that this is because they are now over 30 years old, not because the operators want to stop their turbines killing Golden Eagles. Luckily, today’s more efficient turbine design is in fact less dangerous to birds.
As the world seeks clean energy, wind farms are proliferating everywhere. And birds are being killed everywhere. No one has an answer to this problem.
In Spain to limit the number of Griffon Vultures killed by wind turbines, authorities provided food sources (dubbed ‘restaurants’) for the birds well away from the wind farms out of harm’s way. In Norway, White-tailed Eagles are killed frequently as are Willow Ptarmigan (a kind of grouse). They seem to be regarded as unfortunate collateral.
China is now the largest wind energy provider in the world. It is hard to believe that China would care about bird mortalities. This is the country which infamously promoted the extermination of sparrows, supposed to be a pest, along with flies, rats and mosquitoes. Too late they realized that the sparrows ate insects. Without sparrows, insects proliferated, crops failed, thus bringing about the great famine when 20 million people starved. All because Mao wanted to get rid of sparrows. I don’t think China would care if a few birds were killed by wind farms.
There are wind farms in India, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. In Japan, wind farms threaten Hodgson’s Hawk Eagles. Who knows how many species are being threatened world- wide? There is a trend overseas to build wind farms off shore. This has the advantage (from the operators’ point of view) that birders cannot see the carcasses.
Proponents of wind farms say they will avoid bird migratory routes, they will increase turbine and rotor blade visibility, they will install audio scaring devices and they will compensate for the inevitable small numbers of deaths. This means they will remove other mortality sources such as power lines and sources of electrocution.
That is to say, there are positive steps that could have been taken to prevent bird mortality and no one could be bothered taking them before. And now these measures are seriously proposed as an argument in favour of allowing commercial establishments to erect structures that they know will kill more birds. I can’t believe that they’re serious. If they know how to reduce bird mortality, they should be doing it regardless of any wind farm proposal.
Some say that in the United States alone 440,000 birds are killed annually by wind farms. I have found no justification for this figure. The truth is no one knows how many birds are killed each year by wind farms. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the figure at 33,000 birds killed annually in the United States. That number of deaths is totally unacceptable. I happen to believe that ten per cent of that, 3,300, is quite out of the question. And I know that there are birders who believe that one bird death is one too many.
If 33,000 birds are being killed in North America, how many are killed each year world wide?
We are told that more birds are killed by other things, so we shouldn’t object to a small additional number of deaths caused by wind farms. Sounds like: lots of people die of cancer, so don’t worry about the road toll. Perhaps up to 976 million birds are killed each year in America flying into windows. Hundreds of millions of birds are killed annually by feral and domestic cats. Up to 174 million are killed by power lines. 72 million are killed by pesticides, and perhaps another 60 million by cars. Communication towers conservatively account for another 4–5 million; it could be as high as 50 million. Why then, the argument goes, should anyone object to a mere additional 33,000 bird fatalities each year from wind farms? What arrogance to seriously propose such reasoning!
Killing cute things is bound to raise the public ire. Think of baby seals in Canada. Killing endangered species is also politically unwise. Orange-bellied Parrots are both cute and critically endangered. Modelling shows they will be extinct in the wild by 2015. Yes, I said 2015. Just two years away. These birds breed in Tasmania in summer and spend the winter on the mainland.
The Woolnorth wind farm at Bluff Point and Studland Bay on the rugged north-west coast of Tasmania is right on the Orange-bellied Parrot’s migration route. The turbine operators report that no Orange-bellied Parrot has ever collided with a Woolnorth wind turbine. I believe them. There are so few of the parrots left (about 20 or 30 birds) they’d be extraordinarily unlucky to fly into a turbine. If an Orange-bellied Parrot is sighted within 50 metres of the wind farm, all the turbines must be shut down. I’m not sure how many birders are out there in remote north-west Tasmania looking for rare parrots. It seems to me that if a parrot chose to fly near a turbine it would be most unlikely to be (a) spotted and (b) identified.
The Woolnorth wind farm conducts vegetation surveys underneath its turbines to ensure that there are none of the Orange-bellied Parrot’s preferred food sources present. If you’re going to build a wind farm in the flight path of a critically endangered bird, there’s probably not much more you could do to ensure its safety.
While on the subject of Orange-bellied Parrots and wind farms, I must mention the Bald Hills wind farm debacle as a perfect case study of politicians’ spin. Bald Hills is in Gippsland in Victoria, in a particular spot where no Orange-bellied Parrot has ever been seen. There is no suitable habitat in the immediate vicinity. Modelling showed that one Orange-bellied Parrot would be killed by this wind farm every thousand years. Nevertheless, in 2006, Senator Ian Campbell, then federal environment minister, refused permission for the wind farm citing danger to the Orange-bellied Parrot as his reason.
Wind farms are usually controversial locally and the Bald Hills proposal was no exception. It was in the federal electorate of McMillan, then held by the Labor Party. Senator Campbell was keen to see the former member, Russell Broadbent, re-elected for the Liberals. Russell Broadbent had been campaigning vigorously against wind farms and Senator Campbell had visited McMillan to assist Broadbent’s campaign. He assured the locals that he would do what he could to scupper the Bald Hills proposal. And, honest politician that he is, he did. I can report that the project has since been approved, construction has commenced and the farm is expected to be fully operational by 2015. Ironically, the very year when the Orange-bellied Parrot will be extinct.
Not all wind farm proposals should be approved, but certainly, none should be rejected for the wrong reason. Australian wind farms are required to report bird strikes at their turbines—either carcasses or evidence (such as a pile of feathers) that a bird has been hit but not killed immediately. The problem is that birders do not believe the wind farm’s published statistics. They say that management does not inspect for carcasses frequently enough or thoroughly enough. It has been alleged that as soon as they’ve found the number of dead birds predicted by their modelling, they stop looking. They are not expected to inspect every turbine every day. They select which turbines to inspect and how often. Little wonder birders are sceptical.
It is a dreadful shame that wind farms have become so controversial. Environment effects statements should be able to select appropriate sites, where bird strike is most unlikely. Turbines should be designed to be bird-friendly. Sadly, it will take a long time before birders trust bird strike statistics provided by wind farm operators. And we will probably never trust promises made by politicians, which may seem perverse, as, whatever you might think of his tactics, Ian Campbell undoubtedly did what he said he’d do.
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Sue Taylor is an avid birdwatcher and author. Her new book is called John Gould’s Extinct and Endangered Birds of Australia. This is an edited transcript of her Ockham’s Razor broadcast.
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