For the Birds Radio Program: BWCA AT&T Tower Case, Part II

Original Air Date: May 5, 2011

“Expert” witnesses can change facts depending on what big corporation they’re being paid to testify for.

Duration: 5′59″


Communications towers kill birds. How many is an open question. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that from 5 to 50 million birds are killed every year in tower collisions. Paul Kerlinger, whose normal business is as a consultant to the Wind Power Industry, estimates that towers kill 5 to 10+ million on his website. He cites this number, quote, “to put wind turbine fatalities in perspective,” because when he writes for wind power companies, he wants to prove that other things kill way more birds than turbines do. But when he put together a report as an expert witness for AT&T in the case of the Friends of the Boundary Waters v. AT&T, testifying about how the proposed cell phone tower wouldn’t harm birds despite its guy wires and lights and height 600 feet above the landscape, he set his estimate of how many birds are killed at towers at 3-5 million, just half of the number he gives on his own website. When asked about the discrepancy by the Friends of the Boundary Waters attorney during cross examination, he said his current research supports the lower figure, but as of May 4, 2011, three weeks later, he hasn’t revised the 5 – 10+ million estimate he gives on his webpage. It may just be coincidence that the higher estimate on the website sounds better when he’s speaking on behalf of the wind power industry.

In my testimony, I explained that baby birds learn star patterns before their first migration and navigate based on where stellar north is, which may explain their confusion when they are drawn to lights on foggy nights. In his book, Paul Kerlinger also refers to the famous experiments done to prove stellar navigation. Yet in his sworn testimony, he took issue with my testimony that birds navigate by using the stars. He said under oath, “I was intrigued by that comment. I thought about it because I couldn’t understand how someone could say that. If you look at where baby birds are raised, especially in the Boundary Waters and especially the species that Ms. Erickson was speaking about, for example, ovenbird, they nest on the forest floor. If you have ever lied down on your back on the forest floor and looked towards the sky during the breeding season, you see leaves. These birds literally cannot see the stars that well when they are baby birds. If the nest is on the ground or in a bush even three or four feet above the ground, you just simply won’t see the stars very well.”

Paul Kerlinger continued, “So I also wondered because I know the literature. I worked with some really fine migration biologists, and we have actually studied orientation and navigation using baby birds, raising them in captivity, but she ignored the possibility – actually the fact that birds actually use magnetic cues. If you read the literature, there is a wide acceptance of magnetic cues. And if birds had to navigate by using the stars, they wouldn’t get anywhere because cloudy nights, where would they go? How would they do that? So I took exception to that statement.”

Kerlinger provided the court a four-page resume and a seven-page listing of his publications, and he and the AT&T attorney spent several minutes discussing his credentials at the start of his testimony. I don’t have a Ph.D. and haven’t published any peer-reviewed papers, so when he disputed my statements about birds using stars for navigation, with a mournfully pitying shake of the head, it looked pretty clear to anyone who doesn’t know birds that he was of course the real authority about this. His attorney had not cross-examined me about birds using stars or I could have pointed out that one of the many sources I have for knowing that they use stellar navigation is Kerlinger’s own book. By waiting for Kerlinger’s testimony to bring up the issue, there was no way for me to respond, and the attorneys for the Friends of the Boundary Waters didn’t understand the science of the issue, so it ended up being his word and his huge resume against my word and my much more modest resume.

In both his report to the court and his testimony, he talked about how many birds are killed each year by hunters, ignoring the point that game species are specifically managed for hunting, and that allowable harvest numbers are adjusted to protect populations, and also ignoring the point that virtually no game species are vulnerable to tower collisions.

He also made a point of saying that birds are killed in collisions with the windows of the Hennepin County Courthouse where we were—as a matter of fact, the Sunday before the trial, I found a dead flicker on the sidewalk. He used this as evidence that so many other things kill birds that it doesn’t matter if there’s yet another thing taking them out.

The question of whether AT&T’s proposed guyed, lighted tower is constructed near the Boundary Waters or whether the Friends prevail and one or two 199-foot towers without killing guy wires and lights go up will probably be decided based on issues other than the potential for the larger tower killing birds. I left the court bewildered and flummoxed. One of the books Kerlinger listed in his long list of publications was one he hasn’t yet found a publisher for, titled “What’s Killing Our Birds?” I don’t think I’ll have the stomach to read that one.