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Birds are not tilting at windmills

As usual, fixing one problem only creates new problems to solve.

When I was growing up in the farmland of Nebraska, water was hard to come by, but wind was readily available across the plains. My grandfather Emil erected a two-story windmill that filled the water tank in the pasture from the well he dug below. The windmill assured the cows, goats and sheep had ample water on the dry plains. The mills were surrounded by acres of corn fields. I spent summers in this sky-blue empty flatland.

We lived 12 miles from Stanton, Nebraska, the nearest village. The farm was mostly self-sufficient. Even then, entrepreneurs solved problems. The delivery of the Sears and Roebuck catalog was an occasion for celebration and sharing. Our “necessities’ were carefully selected and delivered to the door. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Amazon is not such a new idea as it is new technology to handle an old idea.

One breezy summer day there was a loud “thunk” that filled the empty space. A small bird had run into one of the spoon-shaped metal blades of the windmill. It lay still on the dry grass at the foot of the windmill. I was distraught as only an 8-year-old girl could be and went wailing to the house for Grandma Paulina. She came out of the kitchen, dusting off her flour-covered hands and nodded solemnly.

“We will have to bury her,” she determined. “Go get a shovel.”

Dutifully, I went to the shed and returned with a small shovel. Grandma did not pick the deceased bird up with her hands but used the shovel to slip the bird into a hole she had dug into the plowed corn field. The slow blades of the windmill spun above us as we deposited the tiny bird into her shallow grave and covered her with sandy Nebraska soil.

“Would you like to mark her grave?” Grandma asked.

I looked for a rock but found only a stick, which I dug into the ground at the head of the grave.

Grandma said in her Lutheran church voice, “May she fly in eternal skies. Amen.”

That was 70 years ago. Despite my forgetful, stroke-addled mind, I vividly remember my introduction to death at the bird burial. I asked friends when they were first introduced to death.

One friend chose to bury her avian corpse in a shoebox under the tomato plants in the vegetable garden. My son who lives in New Zealand, owns a bird feeder that inadvertently killed a songbird. He chose to hide the death from his two young boys, secretly disposing of the bird and its ethical question. I respect these choices. Each situation requires a different thought process and different actions. There is no one answer that fits every situation.

Now, stylish windmills with needle-shaped blades are killing birds by the hundreds. They are of great concern to scientists and environmentalists worldwide. The sky is not empty.

Scientists have found some solutions. In California, where they hatch eggs and raise endangered baby condors by hand, scientists are attaching small radio transmitters to the growing birds. These radios emit a frequency that turns off the windmill when the condor enters its airspace. Environmentalists are working on protecting endangered golden eagles as well. New engineering is creating vertical windmills that are more effective and less dangerous to birds.

Migrating flocks are another serious problem. These problems are not being ignored.

Wind energy is cheap, but not cheap at the expense of migrating cheepers. New problems create new solutions. At what price to the environment do we create energy? Currently, hundreds of thousands of birds are killed annually by the creation and distribution of electricity. Do we continue? Take these questions to a Sunday ethical discussion session and see what answers arise.