For the Birds Radio Program: Conserve Energy

Original Air Date: March 9, 2004

How does saving energy help birds? (7:47)

Audio missing


Conservation– Conserve electricity.

Every time we switch on lights, the TV, our computer, or any other electrical appliance, we’re affecting birds. Whatever method our local power company uses to produce electricity has an impact on the environment and the birds that share it with us.

• Mining for coal can degrade or destroy the large areas around the mine. Extracting and transporting gas and oil cause pollution, oil spills, and other dangerous environmental problems. And our dependence on oil has led to wars that have exacted a horrific human toll, to say nothing of the damage bombs, land and water mines, bullets, defoliants, and other military technologies do to a war zone’s environment and the birds in it.

Burning fossil fuels, especially oil and coal, spews nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Small amounts of toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium and nickel are also released. Major environmental issues related to these pollutants include acid rain, smog (particulate matter and ground-level ozone), and toxic substances, all of which hurt birds as well as humans. Release of carbon dioxide by these plants contributes to global warming, which is already having a serious impact on the migration patterns of seabirds and damaging some ecosystems that birds depend on.

Coal-burning power plants are the single largest source of mercury pollution, which comes down to earth in rainwater, poisoning lakes, rivers and streams. Concern over mercury contamination in 40 states has led government agencies to warn consumers not to eat bass, trout and other sport fish caught in over a thousand lakes and streams. Unfortunately, birds are functionally illiterate and cannot read those fish consumption guidelines.

The less energy we use in areas where our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, the less pollution we’re responsible for releasing into the air, and the healthier our world will be for us humans and the birds we love.

• In 2001, nuclear power plants provided about 20% of the electricity in the United States. These power plants normally release very few contaminants into the air, making them far cleaner than coal or petrochemical plants. But the United States has not reached any kind of consensus about the safest and most prudent way to deal with nuclear waste products, which remain contaminated for centuries or even millennia. Seepage of nuclear waste can cause serious dangers for ground water, crops, and wild plants. Also, the possibility for a reactor emergency, though small, is a clear and present danger, especially in this time of terrorist threats. A reactor event can cause enormous and lasting damage to the environment, birds, and human beings. Minimizing our energy use reduces the amount of nuclear wastes produced, and by reducing the number of reactors built, reduces the likelihood of accidents.

• Hydroelectric power is clean insofar as it doesn’t send contaminants into the air. But hydroelectric plants can affect not only local waters but also streams and lakes far downstream. The transport of suspended solids can be significantly reduced below reservoirs, affecting oxygen content of lower lying lakes. Reservoirs also trap nutrients, making them unavailable downstream. The collapse of the population of land-locked salmon in the Pacific northwest may have been caused by the construction of several dams which reduced the nutrient content of downstream lakes. Hydroelectric plants also affect the temperature of downstream waters. Conserving energy in areas where the source of electricity is hydroelectric power minimizes the number of dams needed, and can minimize the detrimental effects of those dams.

• Wind is a renewable, clean energy source, so this is overall an environmentally friendly source of power. The problem is, wind turbines do kill birds. Many of the best places for building them to get the most reliable and optimal wind conditions, along shorelines and bluffs, are precisely the places where bird migration is heaviest. Wind turbines, especially on wind farms, cause habitat fragmentation and disturbance, and all wind turbines can cause mortality through collisions with the turbine blades or support structures. The birds that migrate most heavily along ridges and bluffs, such as hawks and eagles, are the ones most likely to be killed by wind turbine blades.

A friend of mine who built a small wind turbine for his own power generation was startled one night by a sudden power-outage. He went out to discover the mangled carcass of a Snowy Owl that had been killed by the turbine blades. Wind power is becoming more and more popular as an alternative to dirtier forms of electrical power generation. But again, conserving energy will minimize the number of turbines built, protecting birds.

No matter how our local or regional power company produces our electricity, delivering it to us along transmission lines is also dangerous to birds. A US Fish and Wildlife Service technical report published in 1987 showed that 68% of birds flying in the vicinity of power lines do not react to the lines, and some that do see them flare up to avoid hitting one line and strike another wire. Flying birds, despite their “eagle eyes,” have difficulty gauging their distance from wires suspended in the airspace in front of them. One spring when I visited the Platte River area of Nebraska to see staging Sandhill Cranes, I was saddened to learn that in a couple of days that spring, 17 of these magnificent birds had been found dead under the power lines that run along the highway, which parallels the river. People from the Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary worked with the power company to fit the lines with little plastic spirals which help the cranes see and gauge their distance from the wires better, at least minimizing the kills, but most transmission lines in the nation are built without these inexpensive safeguards. As our burgeoning population requires more electrical power, the biggest power companies build up power grids to allow them to supply energy to larger markets, requiring more and more of these transmission lines, covering more and more land and endangering more and more birds.

We can conserve electricity by turning off lights and appliances when we are not using them, and buying more efficient appliances and electronics whenever possible. Finding ways to keep our homes and offices at a comfortable temperature while minimizing our use of air conditioning and heating helps birds as well as reducing our utility bills. Building solar panels on our roofs to heat our water can save a huge amount of electricity. No matter how we do it, saving electricity will save us money and help protect the world we live in and the birds we share it with.