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Wind Turbines and birds

As wind turbine farms multiply, the Fatal Light Awareness Program is frequently asked by opponents of wind turbines to support a halt to these installations. They look to us to back them in their struggle to save their neighbourhoods from what they perceive to be “eyesores” that generate noise, and that may cause noise-related health problems in humans.

FLAP has monitored the growth of the wind turbine industry with mixed feelings. We certainly applaud the development of renewable energy sources that eliminate water and air pollution, mercury emissions, and that do not contribute to global warming. At the same time, we are concerned about the number of bird and other wildlife fatalities documented around wind turbines.

The numbers are small compared to the bird mortality rates (especially for songbirds) in collisions with lit office towers, emissions stacks, monuments and other structures for night-migrating birds, and in daytime bird strikes with windows and other transparent and mirrored surfaces.

In a fact sheet entitled, Wind Turbine Interactions with birds, Bats and their Habitats, the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative states, “The estimated cumulative impact of collisions with wind turbines is several orders of magnitude lower than the estimated impacts from the leading anthropogenic causes of songbird mortality.” In the hierarchy of threats to birds, collisions with buildings top the list.

That said, a significant enough number of birds and bats have been killed at wind turbines in the United States and Canada to warrant great concern. Wolfe Island, near Kingston, Ontario, is a prime example. Wolfe Island is located at the northeast end of Lake Ontario and is designated as an “Important Bird Area”: an area internationally recognized as a significant stopover for migratory birds, and especially when inclement weather forces emergency landings. One consultant’s report estimates that 602 birds and 1,270 bats were killed by the 86 turbines on Wolfe Island from July to December of 2009.

Migrating birds that normally fly at altitudes well above the tops of wind turbines are at greatest risk from the turbines during take-off and landing. For this reason, FLAP believes that turbines should not be erected wherever migratory birds congregate. To minimize the risk of collisions, FLAP recommends that at least two, third-party environmental assessments be conducted at a chosen location. Michael Mesure, FLAP’s Executive Director, also emphasizes that proposed and existing structures should undergo the same rigorous, environmental assessment. Proper site assessment and management of wind turbines is crucial for the safety of birds and other wildlife.

Over the past two decades, the wind turbine industry has made important environmental changes to its design. The new, free-standing, monopole, tubular support towers are preferable to the original, lattice support towers or scaffolding systems because they offer fewer perches for raptors. And lighting at these new structures is now minimal. However, the new turbines are bigger and present a greater hazard for wildlife.

Some of the studies involving wind turbines and wildlife mortality, like the study at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) grounds in Toronto, show few wildlife casualties. However, this particular study was not conducted during a period of heavy migration. In FLAP’s experience, the heaviest migration period in Toronto typically occurs from the last week of September through to the second week of October. The peak migration period in any proposed area must be included in the study of that site to accurately assess the potential for collisions.

FLAP does not, in any way, oppose the construction of wind turbines that produce clean renewable energy. We only want to ensure that wind turbine companies take full environmental responsibility for their installations and do everything they can to prevent wildlife injury and death.

We passionately believe that we must learn from our tragic, past mistakes. If we had applied similar environmental concern and assessment to the design and building of all structures, we might have prevented what is now a leading cause of death to migratory birds.