With all the deadly threats to America’s birds posed by humans, it’s amazing we still see any of their soaring shapes or enjoy their musical chirps and tweets.
Tall glass buildings, which lure birds into head-on crashes, kill up to a billion birds a year in the United States, according to the American Bird Conservatory. High-speed vehicles kills tens of millions more, as do collisions with electric power lines and communications towers.
Pet and feral cats become voracious predators when they roam outdoors. They kill an estimated half billion birds, and more than a billion small mammals, every year. A recent study in the Journal of Ornithology found that cats killed about 40 percent of all baby Gray Catbirds in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., making them the number one threat to our feathered friends.
Last and least—but still a real problem—wind turbine blades kill roughly 100,000 birds a year, according to estimates by the National Academy of Sciences and others.
Fortunately, unlike cats, humans have the capacity to regret this carnage and find ways to minimize it.
The City of San Francisco—following in the footsteps of Chicago, New York, Toronto, and other progressive cities—is considering an impressively researched new building ordinance, approved last month by the Planning Commission, to promote safer window treatments and limit unnecessary night lighting that attracts birds to their deaths.
As an environmentally progressive utility, PG&E is also stepping up to the plate to reduce bird collisions and electrocutions associated with its electrical lines. Its Avian Protection Plan includes extensive employee training to comply with bird protection laws, promotion of critical habitat conservation, and retrofitting the wires on more than 30,000 electrical poles to make them “bird safe.”
PG&E was honored for this work in 2008 with the Audubon Society’s first Corporate Achievement Award.
As part of its commitment to bird protection, the utility also uses helicopters to install attention-getting “bird flight diverters” on electrical lines in remote areas and builds special platforms on utility poles to provide safe nesting locations for larger birds like Ospreys.
PG&E was also the first utility to join the American Wind Wildlife Institute, a national research organization composed of environmental groups, state wildlife agencies and wind industry companies dedicated to facilitating wind energy while protecting wildlife, including birds and bats.
That mission is particularly critical given the impasse that has developed between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with enforcing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the wind industry, which believes that the Service’s proposed siting guidelines and conservation plans are unreasonably strict.
As a result, wind projects with hundreds of megawatts of capacity are now stalled, slowing the replacement of dirty coal-fired generation with clean, renewable power.
“If we don’t find ways to reduce these emissions, far more birds—and people—will be threatened by global warming than by wind turbines,” said former Audubon Society President John Flicker in 2006. “Our challenge is thus to help design and locate wind-power projects that minimize the negative impacts on birds.”
Tomorrow: What PG&E is doing to protect the California Condor.