Birds Have Much Bigger Enemies Than Wind Turbines

US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lamented this week the number of birds killed by wind turbines. He might want to consider cats.

A large flock of common starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) fly past a wind turbine. | Arterra/UIG via Getty Images
A large flock of common starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) fly past a wind turbine. | Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

Ryan Zinke wants you to think of the birds.

The Trump administration’s interior secretary pointed out the downside of the boom in wind power this week, noting that the spinning blades that now generate more than 25 percent of the electricity in some Midwestern states can be deadly for flying animals.

Speaking to an oil-industry conference in Houston, Zinke touted plans for boosting fossil-fuel extraction on the roughly half a billion acres of federal lands his department manages, and downplayed the downside. While acknowledging that burning oil and gas releases gases like carbon dioxide, he added, “All energy has its consequences.”

"We probably chop us as many as 750,000 birds a year with wind, and the carbon footprint on wind is significant," Zinke said.

Turbine collisions do kill hundreds of thousands of birds a year. But most research suggests the numbers are far smaller and pale in comparison to other bird threats.

“Like so much of what this administration says, these statements are fact-challenged,” John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Seeker.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, an arm of the Interior Department, says the midpoint of scientists’ estimates is about 328,000, but the number could be as high as 680,000 a year.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Gavin Shire told Seeker the figure Zinke cited “is well within the bounds of possibility.” The high end of previous estimates came from a study conducted in 2012 and 2013, didn’t include Alaska and Hawaii, and there’s been “quite a considerable increase” in the number of turbines built since then, he said.

But by comparison, between half a million and a million birds a year die in oil, tar, and brine pits. Around 25 million die when they hit power lines. More than 300 million are killed when they slam into building windows.

And cats kill more than 2.4 billion birds a year, making the toll taken by wind turbines look like a rounding error.

Zinke’s comments are an echo of others by President Donald Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax” and “bullshit” and lamented both the look of wind turbines and the birds lost to the spinning blades.

But the secretary’s remarks were at least within “the right order of magnitude, which is better than his boss,” Rogers said.

“The important thing I think he misses is that the greatest threat to birds is climate change,” Rogers said. “If you are comparing energy technologies, and you are ignoring that facet of them, even if all you’re doing is focusing on birds, you’re missing a big piece of the picture.”

The Audubon Society says rising temperatures — the result of the planet-warming carbon dioxide and other gases released when we burn fossil fuels — could drive more than half of North American bird species from their current ranges by 2080.

“A speedy transition toward a carbon-free economy that includes responsibly-sited and operated renewables is the best way to protect birds and the places they need,” Garry George, Audubon’s director of renewable energy, said in a written statement this week. The group also urged the government to enforce conservation laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Under Zinke, the Interior Department has proposed limiting prosecutions for killing birds, a move critics say will effectively gut the law.

Conservation groups and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been advising utilities on ways to reduce the hazards to migratory birds. And Shire said improvements in the design of wind turbines and the layout of wind farms have helped.

“Some of those older turbines are being replaced. Their life cycle is up, so they’re being replace with new turbines which are less problematic,” he said.

RELATED: GE Goes Big on Wind Power with Massive New Turbines

As for the carbon footprint of a turbine, Rogers said that’s offset in short order by the carbon-free power it produces. By comparison, a coal or gas-driven power plant leaves a much bigger stamp.

The UCS estimates that over the lifetime of a coal burning power plant, it produces 1.4 to 3.6 pounds of carbon emissions for every kilowatt-hour of power it pumps out. Natural gas-burning plants produce about half those emissions. But even with its component materials taken into account, a wind turbine produces about two-thirds of an ounce of carbon per kilowatt-hour.

“There’s the energy and carbon that go into the concrete, the steel, everything that makes the power plant in the first place, then there’s the carbon implications of everything you have to do to make electricity,” he said.

Rogers said Zinke should be encouraged to study the question further.

“I think if he does that, he’ll come to some very different conclusions — and I’m excited to see him get there one day,” Rogers said.