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How researchers can keep birds safe as U.S. wind farms expand


Wind power is on the rise in the United States. By 2020, turbines generated about 8 percent of the country’s electricity, about 50 times the share of wind-generated energy in 2000, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. While growth is a positive step toward curbing climate change, scientists say, it could be bad news for birds.

It is estimated that between 140,000 and 500,000 birds die each year due to turbine collisions. Bird deaths could rise to 1.4 million a year if the U.S. Department of Energy achieves its goal of expanding wind power to 20 percent of the country’s electricity demand by 2030.

To prevent preventable deaths, some scientists advocate the use of citizen science data and bird migration when deciding where to build wind farms. The wind energy industry could use that information to get a more complete picture of what traditional surveys provide and minimize damage to birds and other wildlife (SN: 30/09/14).

Citizen science is already proving that it can fill vital information gaps. From 2007 to 2018, more than 180,000 bird watchers uploaded observations on bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) to the eBird database. Using that treasure trove of data, conservation scientist Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez and her colleagues estimated where in the United States birds would be most abundant throughout the year and would be most at risk of colliding with wind turbines. Unlike traditional survey data, which spans limited periods or places, citizen science data spans the entire United States and reflects year-round, the team reports on March 14 in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Citizen science data should inform decisions about where to build wind turbines, says Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez, a conservation scientist (pictured).Dave Burbank

“What we’re able to do is really harness the strength that only citizen science has,” says Ruiz-Gutierrez of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service has recommended using the team’s bald eagle maps to identify low-risk collision areas that are suitable for building wind turbines.

Turbines can also indirectly damage animals by altering their habitats. Take cranes (Grus americana). Each year, the only naturally threatened bird population migrates from the Texas coast to Canada and back – a round trip of nearly 8,000 miles – flying over a handful of U.S. states that produce most of the wind energy. of the country. To get a better idea of ​​how wind power infrastructure affects birds, the researchers analyzed GPS location data from 57 cranes tracked from 2010 to 2016.

Cranes avoided resting at sites along the route that were near wind turbines, U.S. Geological Survey Aaron Pearse and his colleagues reported on March 7 in Ecological Applications. Birds are “less likely to use scale sites if a wind farm or a group of wind structures are about five miles away,” says Pearse, who is headquartered in Jamestown, ND. By early 2020, this equates to a net loss of 5 percent of bird habitat.

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But during the study period, the team also found that the number of turbines in the migratory corridor of cranes tripled more than 2,215 to 7,622. If this trend continues, continued habitat loss could lead to population decline, Pearse says. That’s one of the reasons cranes became dangerous in the first place.

Like citizen science data, migration monitoring data provide a clearer picture of bird activity throughout the year, Ruis-Gutierrez says. This new type of information could help wind power developers keep birds and their homes safe.



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