At the last presidential debate of 2020, twitter erupted as the current president Donald Trump told Joe Biden that “I know more about wind than you do. It’s extremely expensive. Kills all the birds." The topic up for debate was renewable energy, and although Mr. Trump is not wrong about the ill effects on flying animals caused by wind turbines, it is only a fraction of deaths.
Here’s the break down of avian deaths from different sources.
1. Animal Agriculture
You might not have expected this one but, it must be mentioned. In 2018, over 9 billion chickens were killed in the US for human consumption. In the same year, over 236,000,000 turkeys were slaughtered.
These numbers are absolutely devastating in terms of total bird death, and the worst part is that they are most-likely conservative estimates.
In the industry, certain species are raised for meat and others are raised for their egg producing capabilities. Both groups end up at the slaughter house.
For the most part, the birds that die as a part of the animal agriculture system are only a handful of species; because of the numbers though, they cannot be left off of this list no matter how you feel about eating animals.
2. Domesticated Cats
Yes, you read that right. Domesticated cats are responsible for killing off an estimated 1.3 to 4 billion birds each year (not to mention the up to 23 billion mammals in this killing spree).
Although the authors of the 2013 study concede that most of the mortality is due to un-owned cats (think feral), your cute little shorthair in the living room is probably still a cold blooded killer if they are allowed any time outside.
This has been acknowledged by ecologists to be such an issue that a company, Birdsbesafe, now makes collar covers for cats that warn birds of their possible demise. The device is brightly colored and was cited by a 2015 study to have a bird kill rate reduction of 87 percent. Goofy & really effective.
So, the next time Sprinkles the cat leaves a bird at the door step think about how that may just be one of dozens on her list of kills.
3. Birds vs. Buildings
Urban development has placed a lot of structures in the way of flying creatures. The invention of glass made this worse. Clear glass gives the deadly illusion that some buildings have free air space for birds. As a result, they fly right into the windows.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, this type of collision accounts for 365 to 988 million bird deaths per year. And, I know what you are thinking. Isn’t this just due to large high-rise buildings? You know, the skyscrapers that are upward of 20 stories. Well, no.
About 56 percent of collisions occur with buildings that are one to three stories. Less than 1 percent is due to those really tall structures, no matter how shiny the windows.
Buildings do not even move and they are more of a problem than wind turbines.
4. Collisions with Cars
Have you ever been driving along, radio turned all the way up, and all of the sudden you see a bird flying right in front of you. There was not enough time for you to react and you hit the bird. It’s an uneasy feeling to hit any animal with your car and apparently it is incredibly common.
According to this study, between 89 and 340 million birds are estimated to die as a result of colliding with vehicles. This only accounts for vehicles that are moving on roads, so in theory if it was able to take into account the deaths due to flying into parked cars, the toll would be higher.
5. Pesticide Poisoning
In the United States, agriculture uses 1 billion pounds of pesticides. Worldwide — the number grows to 5.6 billion pounds. To be terse, that is billions of pounds of poison.
Never mind the effects this has on all living things on Earth, birds are especially vulnerable. Pesticides cause the direct death of many birds, especially small ones. Indirectly, the story is scarier.
Many birds eat insects (and many birds eat birds that eat insects). Pesticides are meant to kill insects so it gets into their bodies. When a little finch has filled her belly full of yummy caterpillars, she may have also ingested toxins that will eventually kill her and other animals further up the food chain.
This process of assimilated toxins up the food chain via ingesting foods is called bioaccumulation. Pesticide bioaccumulation is responsible for an estimated 72 million bird deaths per year.
6. Nuclear and Coal Power Plants
Mr. Trump made his comment about wind killing birds as a reason to why wind generated power is still not a viable option to replace natural gas, coal, and nuclear. But, if we really care about bird deaths in the energy sector, moving to wind might spare a majority of these deaths.
A 2013 study found that fossil fuel and nuclear power plants kill a lot of birds — much more that wind turbines. Nuclear power accounts for an estimated 460,000 deaths per year whereas fossil fuel attributes 46 million deaths to the total.
According to the authors, fossil fuel plants “induce avian deaths at various points throughout their fuel cycle: upstream during coal mining, onsite collision and electrocution with operating plant equipment, and downstream poisoning and death caused by acid rain, mercury pollution, and climate change.”
For nuclear, the danger to birds is caused by the upstream mining process that leaves environments toxic as well as actual collision with power plants.
7. Flying into Communication Towers
Usually, when you see communication towers on a long drive you feel a sense of relief that your digital phone connection will not be interrupted. I know I do.
These giant metal structures, however, are deadly for birds. This study estimated that 5 to 50 million birds are killed yearly as a result of colliding with cell towers. There are over 100,000 of these towers in the US and the number is only expected to grow as the world becomes more digitized.
8. Wind Turbine Collisions
Coming in at the very bottom is wind turbines. According to a 2014 study, collisions with wind turbines cause an estimated death toll between 134,000 and 230,000 bird deaths per year (or, approximately 350,000 deaths when adjusted for all species).
Don’t get me wrong, that is a lot of birds still — but, as I hope you can see from the information in this article, it is only a drop in the bucket of total bird deaths.
The amount of good that will come from a global switch to renewable energy is a goal we should all strive for. One study tells us that the switch is “technically feasible” and would result in more jobs, cheaper energy production, virtually no green house gas emissions from the energy sector, and more energy efficiency.
Mentioning bird deaths is really just a political talking point for those who cling to fossil fuels. It’s a tactic meant to elicit gut feelings. The last presidential debate of 2020 showed us that we still need to destroy that narrative.
If Mr. Trump really cares about bird deaths, I would recommend a ban on animal agriculture, outdoor cats, buildings, cars, pesticides, nuclear and fossil fuel power plants, and communication towers — in that order. Then maybe we can talk about wind turbines.