Birds killed by wind turbines: time to act?

Edition 29 November 2018, by Femke van Iperen

Dutch researchers are gathering data on the migratory routes of birds in order to help mitigate deaths caused by wind turbine collisions. Such information has the potential to benefit wind farm operators as well as wildlife, say some. Nonsense, say others; the risk of death for bird by wind turbines is negligible compared to other risks they suffer, such as exhaustion, bad weather and hunting. Has the time come to protect migratory birds from wind turbines in the Netherlands? The number of birds killed by wind turbines in the Netherlands was estimated to be around 50,000 in 2005. This number is likely to increase with the expansion of wind energy. Furthermore, the situation may well be worse, since disturbed migration routes are said to cause significant disruptions in breeding patterns. According to the Volkskrant this September, experts of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) are developing computer models based on migratory routes that can help lower the number of deaths. On Luchterduinen windfarm a radar has been placed by Rijkswaterstaat.

Opinions vary

In the Netherlands, experts such as Climategate are calling for action. In an emotional account entitled ‘Eemshaven wind turbines hit hundreds of protected birds per year,’ Climategate refers to a 2009-2014 study by ecological research service Altenburg & Wymenga on the numbers of birds killed at some of the country’s deadliest turbines, at the Wadden Sea in the Eemshaven. In some cases there are over a thousand deaths per year per turbine. Meanwhile, a 2015 report in the European Journal of Wildlife Research claimed that more than 250.000 bats are killed annually due to collisions with German wind turbines. It too called for evidence-based measures to lessen the ‘negative effects of the operation of wind energy facilities on wildlife populations in order to reconcile environmental and conservation goals.’ According to a Swedish study on birds and bats, published in 2011 and updated in 2017, ‘new knowledge shows that wind power is generally a more serious problem than was realised before,’ and ‘relatively simple measures can limit the damage to bats considerably’.

However, the 2017 Greenpeace article ‘If you read this you will never doubt windmills again’ claimed that ‘windmills are not harmful to animals,’ that ‘migratory birds fly around or over windfarms,’ and ‘thus have virtually no problems with them.’ It even stated that cormorants make use of wind turbines as a place to dry off. In 2012, NEMO Kennislink stated that wind farms ‘seem to have more positive than negative effects on local flora and fauna,’ and a Trouw newspaper article of 2012, entitled ‘Wind turbine not a curse but a blessing for birds,’ it was claimed that wind energy is ‘the form of generation with the lowest impact on wildlife,’ and that it has an ‘insignificant impact on bird populations compared to the advantages.’

The way forward

However significant the negative impact on the lives of birds and bats by wind turbines, solutions are easy and beneficial to all those concerned, say some experts. A 2011 article by researchers from The Nature Conservancy argues that building wind turbines on already disturbed lands, which has the same wind-generating potential as intact habitats, would reduce cumulative impacts to wildlife. This, they say, could also ‘help avoid and mitigate potential costs for projects impacting sensitive lands’ and could improve public value for both wind energy and biodiversity conservation. There are better places to put wind turbines than on ‘pristine mountain tops, in breeding strongholds of protected species, and along critical migratory flyways,’ Forbes also reasoned in an article in 2015 entitled ‘Wind Industry Ignores Bird Conservationists’.

Data such as the Altenburg & Wymenga report, which helps us understand which situations are particularly risky to birds, and the national wind mill risk map by the Dutch bird protection society Vogelbescherming can help bring down bird death numbers. Now, according to the Volkskrant, experiments are taking place in the Eemshaven with switching on and off of wind turbines. Bird ecologist Hein Prinsen said: “We cannot change anything about hunting in southern Europe or the climate in the Sahara, where many birds are killed. But we can do something about the victims of windmills.” Judy Shamoun- Baranes, an expert involved in creating these new data, said: “In the coming decades, many wind farms will be added, especially in the sea, and turbines will become larger. If we do nothing, the number of dead birds will rise.”