For the Birds Radio Program: Free Gifts for the Birds: Write Your Cell Phone Provider

Original Air Date: Dec. 5, 2000 (estimated date)

Laura suggests that if you’re getting a cell phone for Christmas, look into how the different companies construct towers for their antennas. And send a note to your company requesting that they use bird-friendly construction. has a wealth of information about the issue.

Duration: 4′15″


This week we’re talking about gift ideas for the birds. Today we’ll focus on my first free gift idea that will truly benefit birds: cell phones. Birds, of course, seldom talk on the phone. I can’t say never, because I know a few people who put their parrots up to a telephone receiver occasionally, but wild birds have developed their own systems for communications that may be a bit noisy for us at four o’clock of a spring morning but are efficient, up-to-date, and keep birds informed about everything they need to know, which mercifully for them does not include anything about ballot counting in Florida.

So they just don’t use cell phones. But many humans do. The microwave signal that radiates from a cell phone travels through the air to the nearest cell phone tower, which resends the signal over a grid to the next tower, and the next, and the next, until it reaches the recipient’s phone. A single cell phone call may involve well over a hundred towers, but thanks to the miracles of human ingenuity and physics, this all happens faster than a chickadee can blink. The problem is, birds are killed by the millions every year at telecommunications towers, and the mushrooming numbers of cell phone towers crisscrossing the nation are exacerbating the problem. This is not to say that you should not use a cell phone. But if you are buying cell phone service, and if you have more than one company to choose from, please do some comparison shopping, and ask where and what kind of towers they use. Free-standing towers without lights kill few if any birds—the two lethal factors in towers are guy wires, which birds have difficulty seeing or gauging their distance from, and lights, which actually seem to attract nocturnal migrants to them, where the birds bonk into the tower, guy wires, or one another. So the safest towers are relatively short, free-standing ones. If they are lower than 200 feet, they seldom need the lights required on higher towers for airplane safety. And if they are free-standing, by definition they don’t have lethal guy wires.

The best cell-phone tower I know of is the one US West constructed on Moose Mountain in Lakewood Township, right on a migration pathway. That one is simply a wood pole cemented in the ground. It may not look high-tech, but it sends their signal out just fine. The cell phone towers proposed to be built along the Lake Superior north shore in Cook County are certain to kill a disproportionate number of birds, because they will be built precisely along a huge migration pathway, unless the company proposing them is willing to construct lower-tech towers like US West’s in that critical area. In the time you could write one Christmas card letter, you could send your cell phone company a simple note reminding them that towers kill birds, and asking them to please consider lower-tech alternatives without the lethal guy wires and lights that kill so many birds. It’s a simple but generous thing that will make communications companies realize that even high-tech people care about birds. The people who designed this complicated cell phone system in the first place should be capable of figuring out a better way of transmitting the signals than these outmoded, lethal towers. But they only will if consumers pressure them into it. For more information about towers and birds, check out