Increasing Wind Power in the Energy Portfolio May Decrease Annual Bird Fatality



As we decrease our use of fossil fuels for energy production and increase our reliance on alternative energy production, organizations such as the Audubon Society have publicized worries that wind farms will increase bird mortality (Bryce, 2016). Such concerns should be handled seriously, considering US wind turbines currently kill between 140,000 and 328,000 birds annually (Loss et al., 2013) and killing of many of these bird species is considered illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Erickson et al., 2005). Given wind turbine placement is best in areas with increased wind and that migrating birds selectively use winds to decrease flight costs in migration (Alerstam, 1979), it should not be shocking that bird mortality has been shown to increase during migration (Jain et al. 2009a), further posing a problem to wind power development under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Donald Trump has even brought up this issue in arguing against increasing wind energy and phasing out coal stating, “And [wind energy] kills all the birds. I don’t know if you know that… Thousands of birds are lying on the ground. And the eagle. You know, they put you in jail if you kill an eagle. And yet these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds” (Galloway, 2016).

Annual bird fatality due to wind power in comparison to other anthropogenic causes of death and other energy sources, however, can place the threat of wind turbines in perspective. Currently, wind turbines account for less than 1% of annual anthropogenic bird mortality whereas building collision, power lines, and cat predation in sum account for 82.5% of annual anthropogenic bird mortality (Erickson et al., 2005). Even amongst energy sources, Sovacool (2013) estimated that wind energy has only 0.269 avian fatalities per GWh, compared to 5.18 avian fatalities per GWh for fossil fuels and 0.419 avian fatalities per GWh for nuclear power.

If we were to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 following Socolow’s stabilization wedges, wind energy and nuclear energy would need to increase relative to fossil fuel production (Pacala and Socolow, 2004). Even more so, following the Department of Energy’s “Wind Vision” plan, wind energy in the form of both on-shore and offshore wind farms will increase to 35% of our energy portfolio (U.S. Department of Energy, 2015). Wind farms can, though, intersect with the typical pathways through which migrating birds fly during migration, known as “migration flyways.” Thus, looking at whether certain migration flyways are disproportionately affected by turbines is important for placement of on-shore turbines, and projecting how bird mortality per year changes due to a changing energy production portfolio is important to understand implications on bird conservation. Such results could aid in advocacy for conservation and renewable energy, as well as determine if following through with different carbon emissions mitigation strategies decreases violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Here, I first analyze if on-shore wind turbines disproportionately affect certain migration pathways, which could be the case if certain migratory pathways are more heavily trafficked. Then, using current data on the U.S. energy production portfolio, projected energy production, and avian mortality rates, I estimate current annual avian mortality in 2050 and project future avian mortality should we 1) continue with business as usual, 2) implement Socolow’s stabilization wedges, or 3) adapt the Department of Energy’s “Wind Vision” plan in conjunction with Socolow’s stabilization wedges.


Migration Pathways and Avian Mortality

Methods. In order to see if wind turbines placed in certain migration pathways have a disproportionate effect on bird mortality, I cross-referenced wind energy farm locations and capacity information (OpenEI, n.d.) and fatality/MW data from 21 locations (Erickson et al., 2004, 2008; Johnson et al., 2002, 2003; Howe et al., 2002; NWCC, 2010; Young et al., 2003, 2009; Nicholson 2001, 2002; Koford et al., 2005; Derby et al., 2007; Jain et al., 2008; Jain et al., 2009a, 2009b, 2009c). I then assigned each location to one of four migratory flyways as mapped by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2016; Fig. 1): the Pacific Flyway, Central Flyway, Mississippi Flyway, and Atlantic Flyway. I further determined the mean bird fatalities/MW/migratory pathway ± standard deviation (Fig. 2).



Figure 1: Map of U.S. migratory flyways. Adapted from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (2016).


Results. Although mean number of bird fatalities per MW differed between flyways, with the Mississippi Flyway having the highest mean number of bird fatalities per MW (5.265 ± 4.73), the variation in bird fatalities per MW suggests the flyways are not significantly different than other migratory pathways (Figure 2), and that migratory pathways had similar bird fatalities per MW of wind turbines within the range of uncertainty (Figure 2). These results therefore suggest that on-shore wind turbines do not disproportionately affect certain migratory pathways. Therefore, mitigation of avian mortality should focus on local site selection and modification of turbine function rather than broad-based location.



Figure 2: Mean ± SD bird fatalities per MW across the four US Migratory Flyways. Data sourced from: Erickson et al. (2004, 2008), Johnson et al. (2002, 2003), Howe et al. (2002), NWCC (2010), Young et al. (2003, 2009), Nicholson (2001, 2002), Koford et al. (2005), Derby et al. (2007), Jain et al. (2008, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c), and OpenEI (n.d.).


Effect of Carbon Emission Mitigation on Annual Bird Fatality

Methods. To assess current bird mortality and project future bird mortality by 2050 through 1) business as usual, 2) stabilization wedges, and 3) the implementation of the “Wind Vision” plan (Figure 3), I first accessed data on US energy production sources from the EIA “Electricity Data Browser” to obtain the total generated GWh and GWh per energy sources (U.S. Energy Information Administration, n.d.) for 2015. I then multiplied fossil fuel energy, nuclear energy, and wind energy production by Sovacool’s (2013) calculated bird fatalities/GWh for each of these energy sectors. To determine bird fatality/year in 2050, I applied an EIA forecast of 24% growth in electricity from 2013 to 2040 (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2015).

Using the 1-yr average in energy growth (0.89%) obtained from averaging 24% growth from 2013 to 2040, I forecast energy production in 2050 to be 5,519,435.81 GWh. I then broke down energy production between sectors using the 2015 energy portfolio. Then, I applied Sovacool’s (2013) rates of bird fatality/GWh for each sector to determine total bird fatalities/GWh. Following suit, I generated new energy portfolios where the added energy production between 2015 and 2050 was broken down by Socolow’s stabilization wedges (Pacala and Socolow, 2004) where 1/7 of added energy is produced by wind, 1/7 is produced by nuclear energy, and 2/7 is produced by fossil fuel. I was not able to get estimates for bird fatality/ GWh due to solar or hydroelectric; however, both seem to have a negligible effect on bird fatality (Turney and Fthenakis, 2011).

Then, I determined the energy portfolio for a 35% growth in wind farms by 2050 following the “Wind Vision” plan (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2015a). The added energy production between 2015 and 2050 was split in a similar method following Socolow’s stabilization wedges.


Results. As a result of applying carbon mitigation proposals, bird mortality would actually be lower per year when compared to continuing with business as usual (Figure 3). In contrast to public concerns about wind, increasing the wind energy in our energy portfolio would lead to a decrease in the number of bird fatalities due to energy generation per year such that annual bird fatalities would be lower in 2050 than they were in 2015 despite a 31% increase in projected energy generation during this same period (Figure 3).


Bird fatality projections.png

Figure 3: Bird fatalities/yr based on 1) switching to Socolow stabilization wedges’ energy portfolio by 2050, 2) continuing with “business as usual” and not shifting our energy portfolio, and 3) applying the “Wind Vision” report and expanding wind energy to 35% of our energy budget while applying stabilization wedges for carbon mitigation. Figure is made by author. Data is sourced from and projected based on U.S. Energy Information Administration (2015a, 2015b, 2016), Pacala and Socolow (2004), and Sovacool (2013).


Synthesis and Implications

Even though there are concerns regarding increasing wind farms in the U.S., particularly due to legal ramifications under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Erickson et al., 2005), increasing the proportion of energy generated by wind actually would decrease the number of avian mortalities due to electrical energy generation/year, particularly when done in conjunction with other mitigation strategies (Figure 3).

One limitation to these data, however, is that fatality other than direct kills (such as exhaustion of birds leading to increased mortality during migration or kills by power line electrocution; Manville, 2005) is not considered in this analysis. Other energy sources though, pose some of these same risks to birds – particularly that of power line electrocution. At present, power lines alone account for 130 million annual bird mortalities, 13.7% of annual anthropogenic bird mortality (Erickson et al., 2005). Therefore, decreasing a reliance on fossil fuels by increasing wind production and nuclear production would decrease annual avian mortality by avoiding fatalities that are due to fossil fuel extraction, combustion, pollution, and climate change. Contemporaneously, we can invest more research and technology in decreasing bird mortality due to public utilities like power lines, for which steps have already been taken (Manville, 2005).

It is clear that, contrary to public and to Trump’s opinion, increasing wind energy would theoretically benefit bird population viabilities. As research into mitigating and avoiding avian mortality increases, technological advances could potentially further decrease annual mortality rates. Given that available data indicate that migratory pathways do not have significantly different avian mortality rates due to wind turbines (Figure 2), variation in mortality rates could be due to wind energy management and differences between specific wind turbines and size of wind farms. Currently, research is being conducted to further mitigate mortality rates at and around wind turbines. For example, determining diurnal and nocturnal migration densities and locations around proposed and developed sites could determine peak migration times. Avoiding building wind turbines in these sites would decrease future mortality, and turning off currently functioning turbines during these times can decrease both current and future mortality (Hüppop et al., 2006). More work should also be done though in deciphering what types of wind turbine structures and management allow birds to better recognize and avoid wind turbines.


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Linking social theory to science for a more just conservation: the case of the ivory trade

Hello all!

As some of you may or may not know, my interests in the sciences (and outside of them) are a bit all over the place. I’m doing my thesis in hummingbird plumage evolution, however I’ve been exploring political ecology both in my undergrad career and in my graduate career secondary to my work in evolution and behavioral ecology.

I think it’s necessary for those in the sciences to understand the social frameworks within which they work and make recommendations. Historically, conservation has functioned in a colonialist framework that ideologically separates “human” and “natural” processes, often in coercive measures in what’s known as “fortress conservation.” These practices have been negative and problematic, particularly when carried out by developed nations forcibly in colonies, as people have been forcibly removed from parks and antagonism between conservation and disenfranchised locals have grown. Although the era of colonialism has passed, many of these practices and social effects of these practices have remained in a neocolonialist conservationism.

One of the most evident and interesting cases of this is militaristic conservation in Subsaharan Africa to combat wildlife exchange and particularly the ivory trade. There, “shoot-to-kill”/”shoot-on-sight” policies have been passed and internationally endorsed, legalizing and condoning the killing of suspected poachers on park grounds in an escalating “war for biodiversity.” This has been justified internationally because of the connection between the ivory trade and terror networks, who gain funds as middlemen, trading ivory from poachers to developing and developed nations – particularly China, Japan, and the U.S.

Is this just, though? and is this the right tactic we should be taking considering African elephant numbers due to poaching have continued to plummet in recent years despite increased resources in poaching prevention?

I think our approach is flawed. First, I think that the concentration by NGOs and by international groups on poaching rather than on decreasing demand abroad fails to focus attention on the indirect roots of the ivory trade. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge the myriad reasons people may be driven to poach, effectively making us dehumanize African poachers and perpetuate a neocolonial outlook on conservation.

Studies of poaching incentives show that those participating in bush meat poaching are doing so because of a demand for bush meat in local areas, lack of stable governance, a lack of benefits of wildlife, lack of understanding rights over wildlife, and a lack of other viable livelihoods. The latter three are also viewed as incentives for ivory poaching, as well as a dissatisfaction or conflict with conservation policies and a global demand for ivory. Creating an all-inclusive definition for illegal hunting places both those reliant on bush meat (often poor marginalized groups) and those that take part in the ivory trade (yet again often poor marginalized groups, which may fund groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, in the same discursive category. Simultaneously, concentration on the American, European, Chinese, and Japanese consumer is ignored. Thus, the concentration on combatting the poor “African Other” by killing them rather than on the implication of the global North in consumption continues to support a colonialist conservation view and also purport a Malthusian perspective that targets the poor direct exploiters rather than the indirect market drivers. As a result, this black-and-white moral dichotomy between the evil African poacher and the morally upright park and international wildlife protection goals allows for human abuse of the locals while abdicating the roles of the North, similar to the previous colonialist conservation structure.

Social theories also illuminate ways we can rethink the role of elephants and thus our conservation strategies surrounding elephants. Rather than viewing them as resources, we can few them as individuals that affect change both in their ecosystem and amongst those that “speak for them” (mainly international NGOs and donors from affluent countries).

Conservation of elephants does matter, both to elephants and to people. Elephants are keystone species, meaning that they disproportionately affect their ecosystem. By trampling down large trees, elephants break up dense woodland and increase habitat heterogeneity. This allows increased seed dispersal and increased biodiversity, as well as increasing pastureland and ecosystem services. In fact, past over-poaching of elephants during the ivory trade of the 1800s led to decreased pastureland and ecosystem-level change in East Africa. So, decreasing poaching does benefit locals when they have access to parks. It also benefits elephants (obviously in that they aren’t killed but also) by decreasing the killing of matriarchs, those that are selectively poached, and thereby securing herd stability and recovery.

Elephants, though, are also viewed as flagship species by NGOs and thus increase funding and attention to conservation. They make great flagships given their charismatic features (everyone loves elephants, right?) and their similarity to humans (we’ve all seen those elephants paint videos) in both intelligence and social traits. The issue is, though, by humanizing the elephant we’re recreating a historically unjust system in a modern context: the poacher is dehumanized and the elephant humanized, making this war for biodiversity more digestible. Furthermore, this tension in who we prioritize can lead to local people feeling antagonized by conservation, particularly given their lack of power in decision-making. This can perpetuate the extreme human-elephant conflict we’re seeing.

So what should we do about conservation?

Obviously poaching is terrible. But our current strategy has only led to an arms-race between poachers and rangers. We have to concentrate our efforts on decreasing demand, which should also translate to decreased incentive to poach given the decrease in price. We should also acknowledge the incentives to poach and change our discourse surrounding poaching. Then we can develop strategy that targets different incentives. We should also create participatory management practices, which has had some success in South Africa and Namibia. We can then decrease tension and benefit both humans and elephants.


Sources here if you want to read more:

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Douglas, LR, D Veríssimo. 2013. Flagships or Battleships: Deconstructing the relationship between social conflict and conservation flagship species. Environment and Society: Advances in Research 4: 98-116.

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How my veganism impacted my conservation (pt 1)

This may turn out to be a pretty disjointed post. I’ve been vegetarian since I was 11, vegan since 15 and as such I’ve spoken to many and changed my views on activism throughout the past 10 years. I’ve come to the broad conclusion that people should come to veganism at their own pace, or just cutting down on animal-related consumption if it suits their own moral convictions. Issues are often more complicated than they seem. [For more if you’re interested on that experience see the bottom.*]

I had an eye-opening experience doing a McDonalds demo on Hollywood Blvd some 5 years ago put on by Peta. Most Los Angelinos will know that the people generally on Hollywood Blvd are (1) tourists or (2) people that don’t want to be on Hollywood Blvd (humor!). It’s a hodgepodge of different socio-economic groups, nationalities, and cultures, as are many tourist hot-spots. All in all, it was successful, I would say. However, at one point, this man came up to us and yelled at us for being inconsiderate. He told us that many of the people working on Hollywood and Highland make minimum wage or less, and as such could not afford an option other than McDonalds. We were being disrespectful and condescending in telling him to boycott when he didn’t have a choice. He was right.

There has been movement in the animal rights world to acknowledge wealth injustice and the intersectionality with eating vegan in the past few years. But it’s always important to acknowledge that some people are privileged in their ability to take action – be it conservation or animal welfare/rights – when others have much more to lose. This is something I feel gets lost in the global scale of both of these issues. It’s fair to say that the global North has privilege in the conservation realm that the global South lacks. And, although action is taken, we often push the responsibility to developing countries, push the problems to developing countries while we fail to acknowledge our constant lack of action or continuous problems at home.

A few years ago, as well, a petition and global online protests to end the animal sacrifice tradition in the Gadhimai festival in Nepal (which was successful). Discursively, it’s important to separate hindu and buddhist objections, as well as trade-related objections from India and leaders in India and Nepal and local animal rights groups’ objections, from those of people like Bridgette Bardot or the animal rights organizations of the West. I was increasingly aggravated following the development of this story, just as I was when the Cecil the lion story broke out.

Of course, like anyone who cares about other animals, I was happy people wanted justice for them. However, the fact that oh so many people who fail to see the hypocrisy of simultaneously not dealing with the factory farm industry at home, refusing to cut down their animal consumption, refusing to acknowledge animal sacrifices in their own countries, or hunting that happens at home, hopped on board discomforted me. So much so that I am generally oddly quiet when discussions about people murdering animals in other countries for bushmeat, for money, for ritual, or the unique killings of animals we “love” or consider cute/flagship by Westerners (such as Cecil or any mal-treated pet) even come up with those I know don’t take steps to decrease the carnage they take part in. It’s easier to point out injustice far away or pick and choose which animals are worth saving and dignifying based on being a flagship, “wild”, cute, or whatnot. In the same way, we (as in us westerners) are critical of bushmeat traders, or people who kill animals for the sake of “tradition”/”religion”/”culture” yet we act far worse to the animals we eat and wear – and these we do unnecessarily for the most part (see above). Why are we disgusted with one and not the other? Is it because we idolize nature and wildness, both terms we’ve created? Is it because we are easy to pinpoint other cultures’ abuses as savage while we mechanize our own? Is it not the individual we care about at the hands at the hunter or the slaughter, but the idea of it being wild or an “unnecessary slaughter” instead of domestic or “essential” instead? And is moral superiority of Western culture, from which “wilderness” and secularism derives, still just as prevalent as it has been in its problematic past?


* For some background: I was very militant throughout middle school and high school. (Examples for comedic effect: I told my friend she was eating babies in 6th grade when she ate lamb chops. I told another friend her hamburger was death. That wasn’t taken well. I stopped doing that pretty quickly.) The idea in my teenage mind that people were knowingly a part of a torture and killing machine and continued to act in the same way because “cheese is so good” or “but bacon” or “it’s just fashion” disgusted me. And, although there are more genuine and understandable excuses, the vast majority I’ve heard (even when unprompted) followed that line. Frankly, that idea still disgusts me, but I’ve just gotten used to the fact and respected the fact that I can’t be a moral police nor would it be right to. Even more, that doesn’t work. Morality is subjective, and people will move at their own pace if they think it’s right to at all. You have to come to people on their own terms and respect their decisions and experiences, experiences I failed to see in my early years. What we can do, and what we should do, is just show that it’s possible if someone is willing to change their actions.  And if they aren’t, it’s not our responsibility to force them to. One should never antagonize someone for not having the same moral scheme as you. Moreover, acting in a militant way or an antagonizing way pushes people away from the movement and also disregards their subjective experience and views, and potentially health reasons why they may not act in the same way as us. I’d also like to note in case this post has come off as a stereotypical vegan moral rant, that I don’t view myself as better than others — we all have our hypocrisies and we all conform to our own world views.