New York State
Ornithological Association

For the birders and birds of the Empire State

ConservationPosted April 2007
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Birds in the Wind
President's Message
Andy Mason
Published in the July 2007 issue of NY Birders

Birds are intrinsically entwined with human activity, for better or for worse, and there is no area where this is more true than energy production.  The aboriginal residents of North America and the earliest European settlers used wood for fuel, and likely even this small-scale harvesting affected birds.

Today the impacts are magnified many times over.  The fossil
fuels on which our economy and lifestyles depend have major consequences for birds.  Open pit coal mining has destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of forested habitat in the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountain states, land that is critical to at risk species such as Cerulean Warbler and Wood Thrush.  The spoil and drainage from these mines ends up in the river valleys, doubling the damage:  mountaintop coal removal in Appalachia buried or polluted over 1200 miles of streams between 1985 and 2001.  Proposed new methods of extracting coal in the West use immense amounts of water that will lower water tables and threaten riverine habitat.

We all remember the nation’s worst single environmental catastrophe—the immense oil spill from the Exxon Valdez that killed between 100,000 and 200,000 seabirds.  What is less known is that oil exploration and transportation each year results in many times more oil spilled than from the Exxon Valdez.  Environmentalists have fought long and hard to protect the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling—in large part because of the 160 plus species of resident and breeding birds that depend upon this unique ecosystem, including shorebirds and waterfowl already in decline.

As bad as coal and oil production is, the greatest impact on birds comes from burning these fuels and the resulting release of great amounts of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.  Perhaps nowhere more than in New York are birds impacted by acid precipitation, largely from coal-fired electric generating plants.  Innumerable Adirondack lakes are now essentially dead from this acidification, and the loons, Osprey and eagles that once fed and nested there are gone.  An added threat is deposition and release of mercury as a result of coal emissions, with high levels of this toxin appearing in waterfowl, raptors and songbirds.  High elevation evergreen forests have died back from acid rain, costing us boreal species.

The worst effect of fossil fuel use is yet to come, for birds, for other wildlife, and for us.  The threats of carbon-induced global warming include major upheavals of ecosystems, ensuring extinction for some bird species, and dramatic declines for many others.  A study by the American Bird Conservancy estimated nearly 100 bird species in New York State would be affected by anticipated climate change, including over 30 species whose range would no longer include New York.  Early indications of these types of changes are already being seen with clues such as earlier egg dates in Europe and drop-offs in breeding success in the polar regions.  Increases in infectious disease such as West Nile virus, and further encroachment of invasive species add to the impacts of climate change on birds and other wildlife.  Clearly, continuing global warming from burning fossil fuels will fundamentally change bird life as we know it—and not for the better.

Nuclear and hydroelectric power generation are often put forth as having minimal impacts on birds.  However, as we have seen in the James Bay region of Quebec, diversion and manipulation of river flows alter the delicate balance and timing of tidal feeding stopovers that are essential for migrant shorebirds and other species.  In addition, birds that depend on free-flowing rivers, such as Harlequin Duck, cannot survive on reservoirs.  Mercury leaching into these waterways finds its way up the food chain to fish-eating birds.

Nuclear power requires mining of uranium with loss of habitat and tons of radioactive tailings left behind.  Collisions with cooling towers at a Pennsylvania nuclear plant have killed over 1500 birds in less than a decade.  (Similar collisions with coal plant smokestacks are also a cause of bird mortality.)  The long-lived and highly toxic spent fuel from nuclear plants poses both a moral and an environmental dilemma for us.  Can we leave behind deadly poisons that will threaten humans and wildlife alike for tens of thousands of years?

Now--literally on the horizon of this bleak portrait--comes wind power, an energy source that promises no air pollution, no toxic waste, and minimal habitat loss and impact on wildlife.  Is this too good to be true?  As always, there are arguments pro and con.  Certainly wind produces virtually no air pollution, although detractors argue that production, transportation and construction of turbines do require use of conventional fuels—however the same is true of fossil fuel or nuclear plants.  The same can be said for waste materials. 

Habitat and impacts on birds and other wildlife are another matter.  The footprint of wind turbines is a fraction of the land area devoted to fossil fuel extraction.  In fact, the bases of all the wind turbine towers needed to displace fossil fuels used for electricity generation in this country could fit inside one large coal strip mine.  Wind farms do require more land to provide setbacks for safety and sound requirements.  Whether this surrounding land is useful for birds is unclear.  Some species appear to tolerate the turbines, while others, particularly grassland species, may avoid them.  More studies on this potential displacement are needed.

The greatest concern with wind power lies in bird collisions with turbine blades and towers. 

Although newer designs have eliminated guy wires and perches, they also are reaching higher into the sky.  Current turbines are 400 ft. from the ground to the tip of the blades at the top of their arc.  Towers are often lighted, increasing risks to night migrants.

Comparing the relative impacts on birds of conventional electricity generation as described above with that of wind farms is difficult.  Studies at existing wind facilities have not shown high mortality to birds, but there are no standardized and well-reviewed methods for carrying out these counts, and their legitimacy is in question.  Preliminary data from the Maple Ridge wind project in Lewis Co., NY show considerably higher bird mortality than reported at earlier projects, and even higher bat mortality.

Another issue in making these comparisons is to what degree wind power will actually displace conventional generation, considering that backup sources will still be needed to compensate for unpredictable fluctuation in wind generation.

These matters are of great concern to NYSOA and to our member clubs and individual members, as they are to all birders.  Our organization currently has an ad hoc committee reviewing wind power and preparing a formal position and recommendation to be considered by the NYSOA Board of Directors and ultimately by the Council of Delegates.  The committee is chaired by John Confer and includes Mike Burger, Len DeFrancisco, Bill Evans, Bill Lee, Andy Mason, Bill Reeves and Gerry Smith.  We will keep the membership informed of progress on this important issue.

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