The journalist James Delingpole has long described wind turbines as “bat chomping, bird-slicing eco crucifixes”. He does not seem to have been exaggerating. Last month saw the publication of findings from a group of American academic ecologists, that “for the first time” showed “distinct patterns of population – and subpopulation level – vulnerability for a wide variety of bird species found dead at renewable energy facilities”.
The paper continued: “Of the 23 priority bird species killed at renewable energy facilities, 11 (48%) were either highly or moderately vulnerable, experiencing a greater than or equal to 20% decline in the population growth rates.” At the greatest risk are raptors such as golden eagles, kites and owls. These birds are often all-year residents around wind farms, where they require open skies to catch wind currents, perform mating rituals, defend territory and dive for prey. For their part, modern wind turbines generate enormous air fluctuations, while massive blade tips travel at over 150mph.
Published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the paper examined numerous wind and solar facilities in California. The state was selected since it was said to be a “global diversity hotspot” and a big developer of alternative power. Few details of bird kills have been available in the past but the report notes extensive previous slaughter caused by collisions with wind turbines and photovoltaic panels. In addition birds are killed by beams of light from concentrated solar power towers.
Among the birds in the 11 most vulnerable groups were the white-tailed kite, western yellow-billed cuckoo, western grebe, tricoloured blackbird, barn owl and golden eagle. Also said to be at “disproportionately high” relative risk were local subpopulations of horned lark, Wilson’s warbler and burrowing owl. Local subpopulations of western meadowlark, Wilson’s warbler and greater roadrunner were also noted to be affected by solar facilities, while non-local subpopulations of western meadowlark and American kestrel were affected by wind farms.
Raptors were said to show “greater among-species variability to proportional increases in numbers of fatalities than any other taxonomic group, although most raptors also were vulnerable to increases in absolute numbers of fatalities”.
In conclusion, the authors state that their work shows renewable facilities affect both local and migratory birds. The cumulative effects of renewable energy are “probably more extensive than previously understood, especially for migratory species”. Such “non-local demographic effects” are noted to have only rarely been documented.
This ground-breaking work from California is undoubtedly a major step forward in understanding the cumulative effects of wind and solar farm bird depredation. It will be interesting to see if it receives wider press coverage. The problem has been known about for some time. In 2013 Delingpole noted that wind farms built to catch good thermals will “kill a disproportionate number of raptors”. In fine polemic style he noted; “If you really hate nature, you’ll love wind farms. Not only do they destroy the landscape, blight views, increase flooding but… they kill rare birds and bats on an industrial scale”.
The bird slaughter is another elephant in the room for green activists. Few are as conflicted as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Andrew Dodd, the RSPB Head of Casework, told the BBC last year that we clearly need more offshore wind turbines “and the RSPB supports that”. But it was noted that the North Sea was filling up with turbines “and we have to avoid development in the most sensitive areas”. The BBC’s Roger Harrabin reported that the RSPB and wind farm association Renewable UK both blame the government “for failing to mitigate the conflict between wildlife and clean energy”.
Rock and a hard place, might seem to sum up that dilemma. The Harrabin story surrounded the giant Hornsea Three development in the North Sea, an area visited by kittiwakes. These birds are at particular risk since they have been spotted trying to slalom their way through the fields springing up in the North Sea.
Britain is committed to a huge expansion of wind power under Net Zero, and it is already a world leader with over 11,000 turbines. Local planning difficulties have constrained the recent development of onshore sites, but this sector still accounts for almost 60% of total installed capacity. But recent pressure to develop further onshore sites is growing in the wake of the current energy crisis. Last week, the Guardian reported that “leading scientists” had said onshore wind farms need not blight the most beautiful parts of England “because there is plenty of room for them next to rail lines and on brownfield sites”.
It is interesting to speculate how the campaign to ban fracked gas would have fared if it could have been shown that the process produced a pile of dead endangered eagles. In the event, the process was stopped by activists such as Roger Harrabin, with their talk of underground ‘explosions’ and earthquakes similar in intensity to someone sitting on a chair. In California, and elsewhere, it seems the price for recharging a battery car is considerable avian ecocide.
And don’t even start on how all that cobalt is being mined.
Chris Morrison is the Daily Sceptic’s Environment Editor