While there seems to be a never ending deluge of pessimism surrounding the climate change debate these days, there is plenty of cause for optimism as well. One of the biggest examples is how quickly renewable energy is growing as a power source in a vast number of countries.
The International Energy Agency last year reported that by the end of 2021, renewable energy will account for almost 30% of global electricity output. In most countries, renewable energy is now cheaper than energy generated by fossil fuels.
A large proportion of that energy is generated by wind farms, dotted all across the globe. Wind turbines stick out from the landscape in a way that solar panels, geothermal stations and hydropower dams don’t. Potentially as a result of this, they’re the form of renewable energy which has come under most public scrutiny.
While many complaints often concern the impact on local aesthetics or property values, there is one concern with genuine consequences for local wildlife: bird deaths.
The wind turbine-bird death debate is what’s known as a green-on-green conflict.
On one side, there’s the ongoing need for more renewable energy. On the other, if wind turbines do cause significant bird deaths, that could threaten some populations already under pressure from habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change itself.
Do Wind Turbines Kill Birds?
Short answer, yes. There’s more than enough evidence to suggest that birds (not to mention bats) are killed by windmills. It’s not really up for debate, but it’s also not really a pressing question. The better question is…
Do Wind Turbines Kill Birds? Are Wind Turbines A Significant Threat to Bird Species?
First of all, let’s address the aspect of this debate where the science is most firm – wind farms pale into insignificance as a threat to bird species compared to numerous other, more devastating threats. Invasive alien species, outdoor cats, being scooped up by fishers as bycatch, pollution, and yes, climate change. All are bigger threats to shorebirds than wind farms.
If you really want to help birds, you are far better off correctly disposing of plastic, cutting down meat consumption or keeping your cat indoors than campaigning against wind farms.
That being said, let’s forget those other threats for a moment and focus on wind farms. Many studies suggest that wind farms don’t seem to have a significant effect on local bird (or bat) numbers. However looking at one local population can limit our understanding of the big picture.
If a wind farm is smack bang in the middle of a migratory route, that could cause trouble. If a nearby population is already threatened by farming, invasive species or local land degradation, then that could also cause trouble.
The solution to these two scenarios is simple: watch where you put a wind farm. Most studies which focus on bird deaths generally advise against placing wind farms near already threatened populations or heavily fragmented habitats.
So Why Don’t We Do That?
The good news is that we already do! Immense levels of planning go into deciding the location of a wind farm, and most decision-making processes factor in nature reserves and nearby bird and bat populations. Many countries give buffer zones to breeding areas for different species of shorebirds, as well as to nature reserves.
However this often clashes with local populations, who either feel that local wind farms devalue their land, don’t recognise the benefits of cleaner energy, or are concerned about bird deaths.
There are also unfortunately countries who don’t consider biodiversity as heavily when placing turbines. When these wind farms are placed in migratory corridors, that can have effects on populations hundreds of kilometres away.
So… Should We Stop Building Them?
No! The sad fact is that almost any form of energy production requires some land use. Hydropower dams are terrible for fish populations. Solar farms use a huge amount of land for solar capture. It’s worth noting that almost all of the studies which quantify bird deaths admit from the beginning that wind farms are a positive force in the world. The studies are usually not intended to demonise wind energy, but to help governments and industry to better plan locations for wind farms.
It’s also important to remember that while there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding what impact climate change will have on bird populations, we know it’s unlikely to be good.
Short-term changes in population make-up are much easier to recover from than huge, potentially permanent temperature changes and the associated ecosystem upheavals. Increased wind energy is an important solution to the climate crisis.
There’s also a lot of exciting technological advancements pouring in from all over the world that can reduce bird deaths. Some of these advancements are ultra-modern, like the cameras capable of recognising birds and automatically slowing turbine rotation to dramatically lower collision likelihood. Others are simpler, like painting one turbine black to increase visibility.
As a last word, I just want to reiterate what I wrote at the start of this post. Are wind farms a problem for birds? Yes. Are they one of the biggest problems birds face? Not even top five.
But any threat to the planet’s biodiversity needs to be taken seriously these days, so I am thrilled to see the leaps in planning, logistics and technology that are constantly making wind farms more and more bird-friendly. I hope soon that the green-on-green debate around wind farms can end.
Sam Perrin, PhD
Climate Data Expert, Ducky AS
As well as being one of our climate data experts, Sam is also an avid science communicator and runs the blog Ecology for the Masses, where he and a team of international writers break the world of biodiversity and ecology for the general public. Check it out here!