Stop overstating the effects of wind turbines on bird populations

Urban legends spread in really fascinating ways, and once they start, they’re really hard to stop — people get caught in the backfire effect, where ample factual information to contradict something they believe in their hearts to be true cannot convince them. If anything, it seems to entrench them even more. So it is with wind turbines and birds, and the bizarre opposition to wind energy that’s arisen among people who are convinced that turbines are a fatal menace for bird populations.

That results in people fighting the installation of turbines indiscriminately, rather than embracing a clean form of energy, which is really terrible for a country that’s still heavily dependent on forms of energy that are not good for the environment. Turbines are great! More wind energy, please, both on and offshore!

So what’s the deal with turbines and birds? The claim is that they’re decimating bird populations, potentially creating the risk of endangering species living around wind turbines, and that to protect our dwindling numbers of birds, we need to be standing against the installation of turbines. This is…false, and also counterproductive, because it skates right over the nuances of what’s going on here.

To start with, there are two leading threats to birds: Climate change and humans. Climate change is devastating populations of birds that can’t cope with changing flora and fauna around them, and the fact that the plants and insects they rely on for survival aren’t where they used to be. For species limited to an extremely specific geographic area with very particular tolerances, climate change is seriously bad news. Meanwhile, humans are using unsound development practice and sprawling out across the landscape, destroying greenspace and contributing to habitat fragmentation. It’s harder and harder for birds to find places without people. Places with people are filled with things that are dangers to birds, like cars and windows (both of which kill more birds than turbines).

But turbines kill some birds, right? Yes. Obviously they do. The exact numbers aren’t really clear, but it’s somewhere between 10,000 and 300,000 annually. It’s a huge spread because these data are really difficult to collate. And obviously it is sad that any birds are dying at the blades of wind turbines, and we should take all possible measures to limit those deaths, but these are not deaths occurring in numbers that should have us concerned about threatened or endangered species.

Two separate things are contributing to the myth that wind turbines cause damagingly high bird deaths.

The first is turbine technology, which is changing very rapidly. Earlier generations of turbines were actually a lot more dangerous for birds, and definitely caused more bird and bat deaths. After seeing this in action, researchers and energy companies sat down to think about how to improve turbine design in the interest of protecting wildlife, which they did. Modern turbines are specifically engineered to reduce the risk of bird deaths, and they’re getting better all the time, which is super great. Rather than vigorously opposing new turbine installations, people should be talking about overhauling existing installations to replace older generations of turbines with newer ones that are safer for birds. That’s a lengthy and complex process, but one worth it in the long term.

The second is placement. All wind turbines are not created equal and all sites aren’t created equal either. Historically, the first consideration for turbine placement was often the potential for generated energy. Obviously for turbines to be effective, you need wind. You need a consistent and steady supply of it. You don’t want to install turbines somewhere that’s super windy two months a year and then not at all really at any other point. So a lot of thought went into maximising efficiency in placement, because turbines are expensive, and you want them generating as much power as possible.

What people didn’t really think about was how the turbines might interact with the environment where they were placed. At sites like California’s Altamount Pass, that meant that turbines were going up in a spot great for energy generation, but not so great for birds — birds and bats were endangered by the plcement decisions being made by energy companies. Now, people are starting to recognise that this must be factored in from the start, that we need to study area bird and bat populations to understand how turbines will interact with them, so we can decide whether it’s a good idea to move forward with a project proposal.

People facing a new installation should be asking if due consideration has been given to birds, because it’s a reasonable question. The way to approach that isn’t ‘wind energy is terrible and it kills millions of innocent birds and bats every year,’ but, ‘hey, I see that you have evaluated this site and you think there’s a lot of energy potential, have you analysed the specifics of bird populations here.’ That’s nuance — the thing that is often missing from conversations about wind energy and bird safety.

Wind energy actually offers a couple of direct benefits to birds, not least of which is the fact that it is being used to flight climate change, which kills far more birds than turbines ever will. People who are really worried about bird deaths should be focusing their energy on climate change and human incursions on the natural environment, not literally tilting at windmills.

Image: Wind Turbines, nate2b, Flickr