Finding Happy Ground Between Wind Turbines And Birds

It’s March. It’s still cold outside, but the calendar tells us winter’s winding down.

There are other signs of spring: Major league baseball players are working out in Florida and Arizona. And businesses along the western Lake Erie shoreline are gearing up for another fantastic festival called The Biggest Week in American Birding, scheduled for May 3-12.

What fascinates me, in the big picture, isn’t just the birds. But it’s how quickly the issue of birding has gelled and what that could mean for the future of energy production and the environment by getting more people engaged with our natural resources.

Serious birders have known for decades that western Lake Erie is one of the most crucial regions for migratory birds, anything from tiny songbirds to mighty raptors.

For thousands of years, birds have been hard-wired to migrate across Lake Erie en route to Canada and other destinations. Scientists believe nature has programmed them to rest up along the northwest Ohio shoreline and use the Lake Erie islands as stopover points.

Some of this region’s earliest known maps suggest the lake’s western edge could have actually been out at what are now the islands (South Bass, Middle Bass, North Bass, Pelee, et al), not as far west as what became Toledo and Monroe. If that’s true, experts say, the birds may just be following the routes their ancestors took, which is often the case with migration.

Birds wind turbine

image via Shutterstock

But enough of the science lesson. What’s at stake now is public policy, politics, and – of course – money.

International Migratory Bird Day, which takes place in May each year close to Mother’s Day, has been described for years as the Super Bowl of birding. It may have been in other parts of North America, but its potential wasn’t fully realized along the western Lake Erie shoreline until this festival, organized by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, gave it more synergy.

Now, The Biggest Week in American Birding festival is a showcase for how educational and business programs can be more effective working in combination with each other, from ferry shuttles to guest lectures.

Oh, there have always been lots of birders converging along the western Lake Erie shoreline each May, to be sure. But hotels and restaurants packed for miles around and 100,000 or more visitors over a few weekends? Probably not.

In terms of eco-tourism, this effort – bad pun intended – has really taken flight.

Birding, America’s fastest-growing outdoor activity, has gone beyond the stereotypical nerdy bird watchers to become an economic powerhouse. If Great Lakes politicians are serious about diversifying this region’s economy with lighter industries – as they should be, especially given the declines in manufacturing – they cannot deny the impact that birding brings to recreation and tourism.

In northwest Ohio alone, birding contributes $26 million a year and supports 300 jobs, according to a report issued a year ago by Ohio Sea Grant.

The festival’s success and rising popularity comes at a crucial time for birding advocates, because they’re in the fight of their lives over wind turbines, transmission lines, and other energy-producing items they see as threats.

Wind is America’s fastest-growing form of energy production, although that oft-cited claim by the American Wind Energy Association may soon be toned down because of hydraulic fracturing of shale rock for oil and natural gas, or fracking.

There’s a need, even for birds, for society to become less reliant on coal-fired power.     Greenhouse gases, the largest source of which are coal-fired power plants, alter the Earth’s climate and that, in turn, threatens the very act of migration. One of the best books on this topic is David S. Wilcove’s No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations.

Ohio is the No. 4 state for energy usage and No. 2 for greenhouse gases.

Western Lake Erie is where the avian vs. wind power issue collides. It is Ground Zero for the Great Lakes region, which has some of the best wind resources in the nation along the lake shorelines.

Bird and bat advocates argue the research is far too young to assume those avian creatures can co-exist with commercial-scale turbines anywhere near the shorelines.

In Ohio, birders want a moratorium on wind turbines within three miles of the Lake Erie shoreline. The western basin of the lake is the most crucial because it lies smack in the path of major bird flyways.

It also is the most coveted to potential offshore wind-farm developers because the shallowness of water and the access to the regional electric grid offer the best chance for return on investment.
       This energy debate is all about siting. A Government Accountability Office report that came out in 2005 reached no definitive conclusions about the impacts of wind turbines on birds and bats, but it gave examples of other parts of the country where thousands of deaths can be attributed to poor siting. 
  This isn’t the 1950s. We need more energy and cleaner forms of it.

We have the chance to do it right, though. Maybe history will show someday that concerns are unfounded, that birds and bats can indeed co-exist with wind turbines. Maybe it won’t. 

What’s intriguing about the surge in birding’s popularity, though, is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult for politicians to dismiss enthusiasts as a bunch of nerdy bird watchers, especially as their impact on recreation and tourism continues to grow.

greatlakes-echoEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Great Lakes Echo. Author credit goes to Tom Henry.

Great Lakes Echo fosters and serves a news community defined by proximity to and interest in the environment of the Great Lakes watershed. We use traditional news reporting methods but also push the frontiers of journalism to harness the knowledge, interests, skills and energy of that community.


  • Reply March 17, 2013


    So? You build the wind turbine capacity and turn it off during the
    migratory periods. Serious grid capacity brings electricity in from
    elsewhere-Iowa, Kansas, even Texas. If you want to get really 21st
    Century, you build a flyway-long regional sensing grid that reports the
    presence of migrating birds with a refresh cycle similar to, say, what
    the Weather Service uses now. Include jail time for operators who
    ignore bird density warnings, and fines for the companies they work
    for. Perhaps you even schedule maintenance for the migratory periods.

    Oozing anxiety about the poor birdies without suggesting that such
    accommodations can be made is problematical when Ohio burns more coal
    than most countries and Indiana is not far behind. The birds, the
    people, and the planet we live on are ill-served when the question of
    how to move forward is not addressed. Emergencies of the kind we are
    backing ourselves into are all too likely to be resolved on much worse
    terms if birders and power people waste a decade or two telling
    themselves that there are no accommodations to be made.

    • Reply March 19, 2013

      David Lynn Courtney

      Wind projects fuel is wind. Wind also varies depending on the season. Spring and fall being the main prodicers. In order for the finaces to work you have be operational as much as possible. Unfortunately the times when wind farms are required to shut down is the main times of the year when the wind blows. By shutting down the project to allow the birds to pass makes the project un financable. The only reason projects with this type of solution are going forward is that they are just to far ahead in the process to stop. To much money is already invested. The project will be loser’s the rest of their operational life. The investors will never realize a return on their investment. I doubt that anymore will be built under these restrictions. The solution is to avoid these area’s all together. Develop projects responsibly from the beginning and we wouldn’t have these problems. There are lots of areas we can build that don’t pose a problem to birds and bats. We need to build transmission capacity in order to get this non threating power to where it is needed.

  • Reply March 19, 2013

    David Lynn Courtney

    I have worked in the Wind (Renewable energy industry) for over 34 years and have been in charge of the development process. I also am an avid Bird Watcher. In my opinion. The problems have came from inexperienced developers. In the screening process experienced companies would avoid such areas (even thirty years ago). You just wouldn’t develope in these areas. These inexperienced individuals have caused agreat disservice to the community and the industry at large. For their part in developing irresponsible projects they should be charged and sent to jail. This would send astrong message to developers to do things right.
    There are other issues that have come forward that provide a way more dangerous threat to birds than wind turbines. In resant years the Utility companies have changed their design in relation to utility poles. Remember the old poles that spread the wires far a part. This was done for a reason. To prevent arching. The new design has the poles spreaders much more close together allowing arching more often and at a shorter distance. This will obviously lead to more fatalities. Utility poles are the main killer of BIrds. This is devastating for raptors and other large birds.

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