Birds and Wind

Avian mortality is one of the most commonly cited reasons for opposition to wind farms. This essay, written for my Public Opinion at the Environment class at SNRE, explores the bird/wind controversy including its origins, application, accuracy, rise to national attention, impact on public opinion and policy, and role in NIMBY debates.


Bird kills (“avian mortality”) by wind turbines is a controversial issue that has undermined the wind industry as an environmentally-viable alternative energy option and acted as a barrier to the growth of the industry. The issue first came to light during a three-year period in the 1980s when a report by the California Energy Commission estimated that wind turbines the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in California were killing between 100 and 300 raptors per year, 20 to 50 of which were the federally protected and highly valued Golden Eagle. Even more shocking than the numbers was the manner in which they died: raptors soaring through the air scanning for prey would pass through “rotor plane” and were struck, dismembered, and instantly and violently maimed or killed. The high numbers and shocking nature of turbine bird kills motivated several high-profile conservation agencies to lobby for wind regulation. While the dangers of turbines to birds are real, they are not unique — and in fact, the numbers of birds killed by turbines are just a fraction of those killed by windows, buildings, power lines, and outdoor cats, not to mention other forms of energy production. This paper seeks to contextualize bird kills by wind turbines and ultimately calls into question the use, misuse, and abuse of this controversy in the public arena.


Wind is a promising source of renewable energy that is touted to be clean, inexpensive, and abundant – so abundant that there may be enough of it to meet all of the world’s demand (Marvel, 2012). Despite the promise, large-scale wind energy production has been slow to get off the ground for many reasons. First, it is expensive: without more public financing, government subsidies or market incentives, wind energy remains costly to produce – a cost that is often passed onto the consumer, making it hard for wind to compete in a market dominated by cheap fossil fuels. Second, most turbine equipment and materials must be imported from countries with bigger and better alternative energy technology markets, which means billions of US dollars (many from government subsidies) being invested overseas. Wind turbines are criticized for being noisy (producing ambient hums), unsightly (especially when they spoil valuable viewsheds), or allegedly threatening to human health (causing insomnia, headaches, tinnitus, and nausea). All of these factors (not to mention the leveraging of the “anti-wind” lobby, and the potential expiration of the Federal Renewable Program Tax Credit program) have resulted in a relatively slow start for the development of large-scale wind energy production in the United States. Considering all the problems it faces, wind cannot afford any more negative bad press.

Unfortunately, bad press continues to come not from economists or conservatives but from grassroots conservation groups who have made the negative environmental impacts of wind energy well known to the public. This controversy, which has divided the environmental community, has brought so much negative attention to wind that it could very well bring a halt to the large-scale adoption of wind. While many concerns making up the controversy are legitimate, questions must be asked about the ways this debate has influenced public opinion and policy and the implications this debate might have for an entire renewable resource industry struggling to establish itself.

A Debate Hatches

Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area (Altamont Pass), a wind farm situated in the Diablo Mountain Range of Southern California, lays many claims to fame: they are the oldest wind farm in North America and boast the largest concentration of wind turbines in the world. Their turbines also have also been known to kill more birds of prey than any other wind farm in North America. An environmental assessment report published by the California Energy Commission in 2004 estimated that the Altamont Pass wind turbines were responsible for 116 Golden Eagle deaths per year, extrapolating up to 2,900 over the course of 25 years – and these numbers understandably ruffled some feathers. This report, indicating the possibility of extirpation of Golden Eagles from the region, was the first to bring national attention to the impacts that large-scale wind energy production might be having on birds of prey and other airborne wildlife. A follow-up study conducted by the National Lab for Renewable Energy found that 33% (20 of 61) of radio-collared Golden Eagles at Altamont Pass died from collisions with turbine blades or towers.  Around the same time, a publication by the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that wind farms in the US were responsible for about 440,000 bird mortalities per year. These numbers were widely circulated by bird conservation groups around the US: wind turbines had been registered as a threat on their radar.

Avian mortality eventually became a permanent fixture in discourses about wind power at all scales. Most national news coverage perpetuates the issue as a debate, and there appear to be honest attempts to give honest and balanced coverage is to “both sides” (birds and wind). This usually takes the form of cost-benefit analyses that compare the benefits of wind versus the costs to birds; most come to a reasonable conclusion that wind must become more wildlife-friendly before it can be adopted at a large scale. The application of the journalistic balance norm is not exactly unwarranted since turbines do pose significant threats to certain bird populations; this notion is widely supported and accepted by wildlife experts. Unlike the climate change debate, the birds vs. wind debate is about values, not facts, which makes it much more difficult to resolve – but also much more compelling to report on, and more likely to activate concern.

Lawsuits and litigation – and the media coverage given to them – are problem indicators that focus attention on the negative environmental impacts of wind. The debate is made even more compelling when most of the people opposing turbines are wildlife managers, scientists, and leaders of conservation organizations rather than fringe skeptics with questionable credentials. Some have even rallied to take action against wind farms and won – the 2007 lawsuit brought against Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area (which required them to shut down their turbines seasonally and eventually replace all 5,000 units) by a coalition of Californian Audubon chapters is a leading example (discussed more below). Such outcomes should not be surprising, however, considering the long and interesting tradition bird conservation in the US – one that tends to fly beneath the radar.

Protecting Birds: An American Tradition

While there have not been studies done to confirm it, many signs point to birds as being one of the most well-represented and well-protected conservation categories in the United States. Four out of the top twenty largest environmental organizations in the United States are focused on conserving birds.[1] There are more than twice as many articles in the New York Times between 1980 and 2012 tagged with “bird conservation” than “biodiversity.”[2] The public interest in conserving birds is not new, and neither is the leveraging power that bird conservation groups have on public opinion and policy, and in fact is a prominent part of American environmental history and environmental law. The National Audubon Society, founded in 1905, is one of the oldest environmental organizations in America (second only to the Sierra Club, founded in 1892) and is primarily focused on birds. When it comes to focusing and leveraging public attention to achieve bird protection legislation, the National Audubon Society celebrates a long history of success. It was the Audubon Society who successfully reversed the public’s interest in feathers as a fashion item by raising awareness about the dangers of overhunting to birds; their national campaign against plumage led to the Audubon Plumage Law which not only banned the sale of feathers but also regulated hunting birds for sport. Their campaign was so successful that it spread to ten states within a span of 10 years (1910-1920). The National Audubon Society played a key role in advancing birds as an important aspect of the US National Wildlife Refuge System (1903). The National Audubon Society’s crowning achievement came when they secured continent-wide protection for birds with the U.S. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), which was one of the first federal environmental statutes in US History.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act statute makes it illegal to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell wild birds, their eggs, or nests – living or dead. While it was originally designed to protect birds from direct harm, it can also be construed to include protect birds from indirect harm, such as through the alteration of conditions necessary for a bird’s survival. Despite being virtually unknown about by the public, lawsuits and other forms of litigation invoking the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are not uncommon. Enforcement of the Act earlier this year resulted in an entire beach being forced to close because piping plovers were found to be nesting there,[3] just to name one example. Because it is a relatively unknown act, it receives relatively little attention from the public and is surprisingly not the source of more controversy. However, it has historically been used (and continues to be used as) a powerful leveraging tool for bird conservation groups – but not only bird conservation groups, as we will discuss later.

Bird Conservation Groups Brings Wind to Court – and Win

Bird conservation groups were not slow to litigate against wind farms that were killing birds using the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as their primary leveraging tool. In 2004, the same year the California Energy Commission report was published, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a suit against the wind farm claiming that Altamont Pass was violating the Act, which makes the killing of birds illegal, and therefore engaging in unfair business practices and violating public trust laws (by “taking wildlife belonging to the state”). They also accused the wind farm of using government subsidies for “environmentally-friendly” energy production in ways that were also environmentally damaging. Although the suit was dismissed by the county, the ruling invoked the California’s Public Trust Doctrine which states that the state is responsible for protecting wildlife on behalf of Californians, and that the case would be held for further review.

In 2005, a coalition of National Audubon Society chapters filed another suit against Altamont, challenging the state’s re-issuing of “take” permits (permits which exempt the farms from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act). The coalition of Audubon chapters won the suit in 2007 after Altamont agreed to shut down turbines seasonally, remove turbines most dangerous to birds, and participate in a state-approved conservation plan.[4] Altamont Pass – quite agreeably – committed to reducing avian mortality by 50% by November 2009.[5] This represented a major win for birds – but also has the unique effect of highlighting birds as near magical objects that conferred great legal power when invoked.
The Controversial Use of “Birds” in NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) Debates

Many organizations concerned for the welfare of birds – and the environment at large –  have successfully regulated the siting of wind turbines in ecologically sensitive areas usually by invoking the Migratory Bird Treaty Act usually in combination with other laws. Unfortunately, you don’t have to be concerned for birds – or the environment – to invoke these laws. In fact, there are some instances where seemingly well-meaning appeals to biotic values (protecting nature for nature’s sake) turn out to be potentially nothing more than covers for anthropocentric values (protecting nature for human’s sake). The debate surrounding Cape Wind is an example of this.

Cape Wind is an approved offshore wind development in Nantucket Sound that would supply about 75% of Cape Cod’s electrical needs if built – but has been the subject of debate for over ten years. An environmental organization called Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound filed a lawsuit in 2010 claiming that Cape Wind development would violate the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. While there is a possibility that the Alliance’s motives are truly well-intentioned towards wildlife, the Alliance’s credibility takes a hit once you realize that this “grass-roots” sounding group isn’t quite grass-roots at all: its main supporters include Bill Koch, CEO of Oxbow Group with a $4.0B empire built on oil refining, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy (Cape Cod resident), and former Massachusetts Governer Mitt Romney. Bill Koch has donated over $1.0M to the group (10% of its funds) and has spent even more on lobbying congress against Cape Wind. The fact that 93% of Massachusetts residents (78% on the Cape) support the Cape Wind project[6] suggests that those belonging to the Alliance might be more motivated to protest Cape Wind because if the impacts on real estate values and viewsheds than birds and the environment.

: Contextualizing Avian Mortality
Wind energy poses a threat to birds — but how does the threat of wind energy compare to the threats posed by other forms of energy production? According to one study looking to quantify the impacts of different forms of energy production on avian mortality, fossil fuel production is 17 times more dangerous to birds on a per Gwh (Gigawatt-hour) basis than wind power.[7] This study took into account sites where fossil fuels were produced; it did not take into account the impacts of extraction, transportation, distribution, and consumption, all of which are negative to not only birds, but to the environment and human health in significant ways.

Unfortunately, the far-reaching effects of fossil fuel production tend to get relatively little coverage likely because its effects (gradual declines in population) are not as immediately noticeable or direct as the effects of wind energy, which are more noticeable and direct (dead birds beneath a tower with spinning blades). This makes stories about wind farms appeal to journalistic norms such as personalization (stories involve grassroots bird conservation groups rallying against turbines being placed in their local natural environment) and dramatization (stories and photos featuring bald eagles colliding with wind turbines tend to get a lot of attention). Because the impacts on birds are directly observable and measurable, wildlife scientists and other credible experts are more often willing to contribute to discussions and shape discourse in ways that are likely to be unfavorable to wind farms. One could argue that these attention-grabbing factors that characterize the wind versus birds controversy give wind industry an undeserved and disproportionate amount of negative attention by the media — especially after you consider the impacts of fossil fuel production, which are magnitudes worse and yet generally less likely to be reported on.

Oil spills are an exception to this rule; as a type of focusing event, oil spills bring a lot of negative attention to all aspects of fossil fuel consumption including the negative impacts that oil has on birds and other wildlife. Unfortunately, events that focus attention on fossil fuels have considerably less leveraging power on the fossil fuel industry than events that focus attention on wind, which is relatively young industry that is vulnerable to potential collapse.


While it is obvious that the “birds vs. wind” controversy has played a role in the influencing American perceptions and reactions to wind power, it is hard to determine what the impacts are to any precise degree. Media coverage, public opinion data, and case studies can only help triangulate such a measure.  It is even more difficult to say anything conclusive about what the controversy has meant for the adoption of large-scale wind energy in the United States and how the attention given to its negative environmental impacts might affect its future. Instead of seeking to answer these questions, this paper seeks to simply call into question the ways in which the media and the public engages this issue and whether or not attention given to it is fair, especially considering the negative impacts of non-renewable sources and the challenges of reporting about them (as with climate change, most effects of fossil fuel production are perceived as temporally and spatially remote; not of high concern to the average person). While the numbers and manner in which birds die from turbines is easy to report on and generate concern about, is it not also important to kindly remind media consumers of the much more devastating (but often much less obvious) impacts that fossil fuel production has on this same wildlife everyday? Focusing on the controversy as if there were only two choices (birds vs. wind) has made for a sterile debate that hasn’t advanced much since it was realized; the only way forward appears to be with more wildlife-protecting regulations against wind. While protecting wildlife is very important, the need to “switch over” to renewable energy sources as soon as possible is probably even more important; and if it comes down to the wire, some might even wager to say that a poorly regulated big wind industry would be better than none at all, and that paying so much negative attention to the “negative impacts of wind” (bird kills) is dangerous and potentially catastrophic, especially when you consider the power, reputation, and practices of the industries that wind is competing with.
This paper also calls into question potential concerns about “single-focus” conservation groups (such as groups focused on birds) and the ways they engage with complex problems that are wider than their area of interest. Single-focus groups risk understanding situations only as they exist in relation to their area of interest; by focusing attention on a single domain or life (e.g., birds) or by focusing attention on singular threat to a narrow domain of life (e.g., wind turbines), certain groups might risk missing important components of the “bigger picture” (e.g., the effects of continued use of fossil fuels) and inadvertently find themselves promoting action that is actually not congruent with their mission (like what could result if concerns about coverage on “bird blenders” or “guillotines of wildlife” ends up tarnishing the reputation of wind power so much that large-scape adoption of this form of energy production becomes impossible simply because it is perceived as environmentally harmful or even just unlikeable).

Because most people receive information about science and the environment from the media, it is up to the media contextualize the “negative environmental impacts” of wind power and make an effort to become aware of potential disparities between perceived and actual threats. It is also up to conservation groups to expand their focus beyond their area of interest and make an effort to understand the potential impacts of fighting against an industry that is, when considered over larger scales of time and space, is an environmental win for everybody, even for them. Lastly, it is up to citizens to become informed about issues and try to understand the implications of their decisions, actions, and practices at different scales, and try to think critically about the way media portrays issues. While it may be seem honorable to fight wind mills because they kill birds, maybe you are fighting against more than you think – including potential “allies” in an even bigger battle against an energy crisis that threatens the well-being of everything on earth.

[1] Bill Moyer’s “Earth on the Edge”, PBS:

[2] NYT List of Articles about Wind Turbines and Birds (Available on request)

[3] The Boston Globe, “As piping plovers rebound, more of Revere Beach is off limits.” July 3, 2012

[4] Settlement framework::

[5] Despite the measures taken by Altamont Pass to reduce bird mortality, a report by a third-party monitoring group (Altamont Pass Avian Mortality Monitoring Group) showed that the number of bird kills had actually increased for most species between 2005 and 2008 (except for the Golden Eagle, which decreased by 35%). Note that this could indicate inconsistencies in data collection, and may not represent an actual increase in bird deaths.

[6] More details about Cape Wind:

[7] Benjamin K. Sovacool, “Contextualizing Avian Mortality: A Preliminary Appraisal of Bird and Ba Fatalities from Wind, Fossil-Fuel, and Nuclear Electricity,” Energy Policy 37(6) (June, 2009), pp. 2241-2248


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