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

Original Air Date: May 4, 2011

A huge body of evidence establishes that communications towers kill millions of birds every year. Lights and guy wires are the two factors that are associated with the kills. But AT&T intends to build a lighted, guyed tower on the edge of the Boundary Waters, right where an abundance of the birds most vulnerable to towers live. Laura is serving as an expert witness for the Friends of the Boundary Waters in trying to prevent this.

Duration: 4′44″
  • Charles Kemper


Back in the 1980s I learned about the hazards that communications towers pose to birds. These towers and their guy wires kill millions of migrating songbirds every year when the towers are tall enough to require lighting. My friend Charles Kemper had discovered 20,000 dead birds under a TV tower in Eau Claire on a single foggy night in 1957. That same tower killed 35,000 birds on a weekend in the early 60s. Red lights are especially dangerous to nocturnal migrants, which are drawn to them, especially in fog when stars are obscured. When I was rehabbing birds, I quickly learned never to turn on a light at night in a room with warblers—they instantly flew up directly toward or into the light.

We don’t know exactly why night-migrating songbirds are attracted to lights, but we do know that they learn star patterns during their first summer before their first migration. A variety of experiments conducted in planetariums established that young birds begin to recognize the one fixed star among all the constellations, whether the planetarium is rotating the projected stars around Polaris or Betelgeuse, and that defines the birds’ sense of north. Subsequent experiments have shown that birds are sensitive to magnetism, and have magnetite or other magnetic substances in brain and eye tissue, but because the planetarium birds oriented toward or away from stellar north, regardless of where magnetic north was, we assume they are calibrating their magnetic compass by the stars.

In the past several months, I’ve been trying to help the Friends of the Boundary Waters in their fight against AT&T, who wants to construct a guyed, lighted 450-foot tower just outside the Boundary Waters in Ely. They became concerned because the lights will be visible for many miles into the wilderness, changing the character of it. When they also became aware that lighted towers harm night-migrating birds, they contacted me. This is a reasonable concern—the vast majority of birds that are killed by towers are warblers, thrushes, and vireos which are abundant in the Boundary Waters. Indeed, of the 35 species most frequently killed at towers, 32 nest in the Boundary Waters. One researcher found that migrants breeding locally are more susceptible to kills in springtime, when they’re searching for breeding territories. It seemed to me that the visual blight and potential destruction of birds by a tower set so near genuine wilderness couldn’t possibly be justified.

Of course, cell phones do sometimes save lives. But the proposed tower will provide less than 10% more cell phone coverage than a 199-foot unlighted tower, and building two 199-foot towers would provide a great deal more coverage. During the trial, after emphasizing all the dangers of the wilderness and how people in the wilderness have been in dire circumstances where cell phone service would have been saved hours, AT&T was forced to admit that their benchmark for going ahead with any tower project is that it must pay for itself within 60 months, unless it’s being constructed for a VIP or major but temporary venue. This tower didn’t meet their benchmark because it would only pay for itself within 63 months.

I was particularly concerned after hearing the testimony of the ornithologist AT&T hired. I didn’t want to misquote him, but I finally got a transcript of the trial. Tomorrow I’ll talk about his testimony.