wind farms and bird kill

One of the enduring myths often raised by anti wind farm campaigners is that wind farms will cause massive death rates of birds. For instance at the wind farm ‘information’ session held in late November in Sunbury it was said that the possible wind farm near Gisborne South would probably take out the Wedgetail Eagles that frequent the area.

A number of people we have spoken with in the course of our travels around Victoria who don’t like wind farms (but who aren’t outright climate deniers or sceptics) have relied on the ‘bird kill’ argument. And many of these people have used the example of the ‘terrible’ situation somewhere in California where thousands of birds are killed each year. This is a fairly uniform situation with many anti-wind farm campaigners I have met of late – they have strong fears about health or environmental impacts, but limited actual information about what these problems might be.

We assume they are referring to the rather infamous example of the wind farm at Altamont Pass, in the Diablo Range of Central California.

We would agree that the high bird kill rate at this operation is completely unacceptable. It includes a number of rare species and the individual death rates are very high (see table below). It is clear that there are some places that are simply not suitable for wind farming.

But we would also point out that the farm was developed after the 1970s energy crisis and sited without close attention to the likely impacts on local and migratory bird species. This is not the case with any new wind farms here in Victoria, where in depth study is required prior to approval. For instance, there is the recent example of the Stockyard Hill wind farm, where the original application for 242 turbines was denied due to the impact on the nearby Brolga population. The farm is between Beaufort and Skipton, about 35 kilometres west of Ballarat. After findings from the planning panel appointed by the planning minister, 41 turbines were rejected due to their likely impact on Brolgas. The wind farm still needs federal government approval before it can proceed.

The other point to make is that the Altamont farm is based on very old technology – it was built mostly in the early 1980s. The story below, which is also available here, highlights the problems associated with using smaller, faster moving turbines, and the measures underway to modernise the Altamont farm.

Anti wind farm advocates should be cautious in terms of simply grabbing isolated problems from else where, then assuming they will play out here in Victoria. We have a thorough approvals process – which has already shown that it can be sensitive to likely environmental impacts, resulting in reduced and substantially modified projects.

Some salient facts to remember when trying to draw comparisons between Altamont and wind energy production here in Victoria:

  • They are decades old – they were installed after the 1970s energy crisis in response to favorable tax policies for investors.
  • The wind farm is composed of over 4,900 relatively small wind turbines of various types.
  • Considered largely obsolete, these numerous small turbines are being gradually replaced with much larger and more cost-effective units.
  • The small turbines are dangerous to various raptors that hunt California Ground Squirrels in the area.
  • The larger units turn more slowly and, being elevated higher, are claimed by the manufacturers and wind farm proponents to be less hazardous to local wildlife.
  • This claim is supported by a report done for the Bonneville Power Administration.
  • Currently the Altamont wind farm is shut down by government order for several months of the year to attempt to mitigate bird mortality.

Source: The Wikipedia page on Altamont, which can be found here.

Windmills in the Altamont Hills, west of Tracy. Image: Michael McCollum/Record file 2003

To save birds, energy farm to switch out old turbines

One of the largest wind farms in the world is about to get a modern makeover.

Officials announced an agreement Monday to replace 2,400 antiquated turbines on the Altamont Pass, where thousands of birds are killed by spinning blades each year.

The turbines included in Monday’s agreement account for about half the Altamont’s smaller, older windmills, experts say. Supporters said they hope the agreement will create momentum to retrofit the remaining windmills.

“We think this is going to be a significant movement for the whole project,” said Mark Welther, executive director of the Audubon Society’s Golden Gate chapter.

The legal agreement, announced by state Attorney General and Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, was signed by environmental groups and NextEra Energy Resources – the Altamont’s largest turbine operator.

NextEra must replace 2,400 turbines over the next four years, shutting down all its existing turbines no later than 2015, Brown’s office said. New turbines will be erected in environmentally friendly locations.

The company will also pay $2.5 million in mitigation fees to create raptor habitat elsewhere.

A 2004 study ordered by the California Energy Commission found that 1,766 to 4,721 birds are killed each year at the huge wind farm between Tracy and Livermore. The annual death toll includes 881 to 1,300 raptors – golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and American kestrels.

The Altamont’s oldest windmills, installed in the 1980s, are smaller and lower to the ground than today’s modern turbines. It is believed the taller windmills put the blades above the flight lines of raptors.

Cattle congregate around the towers and graze, consultant Carl G. Thelander said in a 2006 report. Cattle droppings attract grasshoppers, which in turn draw raptors toward the deadly blades. Burrowing rodents also flourish in the disturbed soil around the base of the towers.

Wind energy producers and environmentalists have tussled for years on finding a balance between emissions-free power generation on one hand and bird safety on the other. Monday’s agreement follows a 2007 settlement that Brown’s office says failed to reduce bird deaths substantially.

By the numbers

Officials say 1,766 to 4,721 birds representing 40 species are killed each year at the Altamont wind farm, including:

• 75 to 116 golden eagles

• 209 to 300 red-tailed hawks

• 73 to 333 American kestrels

• 99 to 380 burrowing owls

The reporter who wrote this article is Alex Breitler, who can be contacted at

You can also visit his blog here.

One thought on “wind farms and bird kill

  1. I heard on radio RRR this morning a birdwatcher talking about the decline in bird population during the drought. Small woodland birds, he was saying, breed in wet years and usually have lifespans about 5 years. So over the 10 year drought, there was very little breeding and as a result in northern Victoria the small woodland birds have declined enormously. He said it will take several wet years for them to bounce back to anything like their normal population. While this doesn’t justify siting wind farms where they will kill lots of endangered birds, it does point out that climate change itself (causing more droughts) is a much greater threat to wildlife.

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