Last Updated with Latest Published Information: January 2014
This page summarizes what is known about the adverse impacts of land-based wind power on wildlife in North America and the status of our knowledge regarding how to avoid or minimize these impacts. To download a printable PDF of this information, click here.
Suggested Citation for this Page: American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI). 2014. Wind turbine interactions with wildlife and their habitats: a summary of research results and priority questions. Viewed [DATE] at <[HYPERLINK]>.
Individual birds and bats may collide with wind turbines, causing death. Potential adverse wildlife impacts also include direct and indirect habitat loss from the construction and operation of wind energy facilities; indirect effects include displacement by avoidance of otherwise suitable habitat, or demographic impacts, such as reduced survival or reproductive output (e.g., Arnett et al. 2007; Kuvlesky et al. 2007; NAS 2007; Strickland et al. 2011). This page organizes statements about what is known and what remains uncertain regarding the adverse impacts of wind energy on wildlife in the categories listed below.
Within each section, statements are ordered in decreasing level of certainty. Our level of certainty reflects the “weight of the evidence” that comes from multiple studies on a question of interest. One published study, although informative, is usually insufficient for drawing broad conclusions. For example, fatality monitoring for birds and bats has been conducted for many years and has become a routine procedure at new facilities.1 However, although more information is available on direct impacts to individuals, substantial uncertainty remains about our ability to predict risk or our understanding of the population-level consequences.
1 To demonstrate adherence to the 2012 USFWS Land-based Wind Energy Guidelines, project operators are requested to conduct a minimum of two years of post-construction fatality monitoring.
Cumulative Impacts of Mortality
Avoidance and Minimization of Collision Fatalities
Direct and Indirect Habitat-Based Impacts
Wind energy’s ability to generate electricity without carbon emissions will help reduce the potentially catastrophic effects of unlimited climate change on wildlife, and wind energy provides several other environmental benefits including substantially reduced water withdrawals and consumption, mercury emissions, and other sources of air and water pollution associated with burning fossil fuels (e.g., NRC 2010). Adverse impacts of wind energy facilities to wildlife, particularly to individual birds and bats have been documented (Arnett et al. 2008; Strickland et al. 2011). Impacts to wildlife populations have not been documented, but the potential for biologically significant impacts continue to be a source of concern as populations of many species overlapping with proposed wind energy development are experiencing long-term declines owing to habitat loss and fragmentation, disease, non-native invasive species, and increased mortality from numerous anthropogenic activities (e.g., NABCI 2009; Arnett and Baerwald 2013).
The amount of research in the peer-reviewed literature has grown substantially since 2010, reflecting the continued interest in understanding wind-wildlife interactions. This interest was underscored by the recent AWWI-NWCC Wind Wildlife Research Meeting IX that featured more than 100 oral and poster presentations. Much of the research presented at this meeting has not been published, and there is also a large amount of literature of wind-wildlife research consisting of unpublished reports documenting impacts of wind energy projects funded by wind energy companies or contracted by state and federal agencies. In order to maintain the highest level of scientific rigor for this fact sheet, we have emphasized research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals and un-published reports that have undergone expert technical review.
Since the previous version of this fact sheet, installed wind energy capacity in the United States has grown rapidly, increasing from approximately 35,000 megawatts (MW; one MW equals one million watts) in early 2010 to more than 60,000 MW at the end of Q3 in 2013. Land-based wind turbines have grown substantially in power output over the years; name-plate capacity of turbines installed at new projects ranges from 1.5-2.5 MW. Today’s turbine towers range in height from 200–260 feet (60-80 m) and turbine blades create a rotor swept area of 75-90 m (250–300 feet) in diameter, resulting in blade tips that can reach over 130 m (425 feet) above ground level. Rotor swept areas now exceed 0.4 ha (one acre) and are expected to reach nearly 0.6 ha (1.5 acres) within the next several years. The speed of rotor revolution has significantly decreased from 60-80 revolutions per minute (rpm) to 11–28 rpm, but blade tip speeds have remained about the same; ranging from 220-290 km/hr (140-180 mph) under normal operating conditions. Most modern wind energy facilities have fewer machines producing the same or more electricity than early facilities; current projects have wider spacing between turbines and cover thousands of acres.
Results from the number of studies reporting collision fatality monitoring at operating wind energy facilities has increased substantially over the years, and approximately 100 studies that were conducted at all seasons are available (e.g., Strickland et al. 2011; Arnett and Baerwald 2013; Loss et al. 2013). Protocols for carcass searching also have become more standardized, thereby facilitating comparisons of more recent results. There remains much uncertainty as to underlying patterns in collision fatalities in both birds and bats. Some of this uncertainty reflects the lack of data from some regions of the country. For example, we are aware of only one publicly available fatality report from the southwestern U.S., and the northern and eastern regions of the country are underrepresented relative to the Midwest/Prairie region and the Intermountain West. We also do not know whether publicly available reports accurately reflect what is occurring at the majority of facilities from which data are not currently available.
This first section briefly outlines what is known and where there is remaining uncertainty about the patterns of collision fatalities focusing in the continental U.S. We first examine patterns that apply to both birds and bats and then describe patterns for birds and bats separately.
We assume that most bird and bat collisions are with the rotating turbine blades (Kingsley and Whittam 2007; Kunz et al. 2007a; Kuvlesky et al. 2007; NAS 2007; Arnett et al. 2008; Strickland et al. 2011), although collisions with turbine towers is also possible. Fatality rates for most publicly available studies range between three to five birds per MW per year (for all species combined and adjusted for detection biases); a single facility of three turbines in Tennessee reported approximately 14 bird fatalities, but that number dropped to approximately 1 after the facility was expanded (e.g., Strickland et al. 2011; Loss et al. 2013). There is little variation in bird fatalities across regions for all species combined, although fatalities at sites in the Great Plains appear to be lower than sites in the rest of the U.S., and fatalities in the Pacific region may be significantly higher (Loss et al. 2013), but it is unknown to what extent these differences reflect the sample bias discussed earlier.
Bat fatality rates can be substantially higher than bird fatality rates, especially at facilities in the Upper Midwest and eastern forests: two facilities within the Appalachian region reported fatality levels of greater than 30 bats/MW per year, but there are reports as low as one to two bats/MW per year at other facilities in the eastern U.S. (Hein et al. 2013). Studies have not found a consistent pattern of fatalities across landscape types: fatality rates can be equally high in agricultural, forested landscapes, or in a matrix of those landscape types (e.g. Jain et al. 2011). Fatality rates average substantially lower at facilities in the western U.S., but, in general, there is greater variation in bat fatalities within regions than among regions (Arnett et al. 2013a; Hein et al. 2013).
The number of bat and songbird fatalities at turbines using FAA-approved lighting is not greater than that recorded at unlit turbines (Avery et al. 1976; Arnett et al. 2008; Longcore et al. 2008; Gehring et al. 2009; Kerlinger et al. 2010). The FAA regulates the lighting required on structures taller than 199 feet in height above ground level to ensure air traffic safety. For wind turbines, the FAA currently recommends strobe or strobe-like lights that produce momentary flashes interspersed with dark periods up to three seconds in duration, and they allow commercial wind facilities to light a proportion of the turbines in a facility (e.g., one in five), firing all lights synchronously (FAA 2007). Red strobe or strobe-like lights are frequently used.
There are conflicting reports on whether bird and bat collisions increase with tower height or rotor swept area on a per MW basis (Baerwald and Barclay 2009; Barclay et al. 2007; Strickland et al. 2011; Arnett and Baerwald 2013; Loss et al. 2013a). Taller turbines have much larger rotor-swept areas, and it has been hypothesized that collision fatalities will increase owing to the greater overlap with flight heights of nocturnal-migrating songbirds and bats (Johnson et al. 2002; Barclay et al. 2007). The vast majority (>80%) of avian nocturnal migrants typically fly above the height of the rotor-swept zone (<500 feet; <150 m) (Mabee and Cooper 2004; Mabee et al. 2006).
Collisions of small songbirds (<31 cm in length) account for approximately 60% of fatalities at U.S. wind facilities (Loss et al. 2013); small songbirds comprise more than 90% of all landbirds (Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013). Most songbird species are migratory resulting in spring and fall peaks of bird casualty rates at most wind facilities (Strickland et al. 2011).
Diurnal raptors and pheasants also are relatively frequent fatalities, particularly in the western U.S. where these species are more common. These groups are far less abundant than songbirds, and the relatively high fatality rates for raptors and pheasants suggest a higher vulnerability to collision. The vulnerability to collision of native game birds, e.g., sage grouse and prairie chickens, is uncertain. Fatalities of waterbirds and waterfowl, and other species characteristic of freshwater, shorelines, open water and coastal areas (e.g., ducks, gulls and terns, shorebirds, loons and grebes) are recorded infrequently at land-based wind facilities (e.g., Kingsley and Whittam 2007; Gue et al. 2013). The infrequent fatalities of coastal birds is somewhat different than that reported at a single facility in the Netherlands (Winkelman 1992), but this could be owing to the limited information from coastal wind facilities, particularly in the United States (Kingsley and Whittam 2007; NAS 2007).
Numbers of raptor fatalities appear to be declining as a result of the repowering at Altamont; smaller low-capacity turbines are being replaced with taller, higher-capacity turbines (Smallwood and Karas 2009). Larger turbines have fewer rotations per minute, and this difference may be partly responsible for the lower raptor collision rates (NAS 2007). In addition, smaller turbines that use lattice support towers offer many more perching sites for raptors than large, modern turbines on tubular support towers, thus encouraging higher raptor occupancy in the immediate vicinity of the rotor swept area of the turbines (NAS 2007). Fatalities could also be lower on a per MW basis because fewer, larger turbines are needed to produce the same energy as smaller turbines. It is difficult to separate the importance of these individual factors in the observed reduction in raptor collision rates.
Twenty one species of bats have been recorded as collision fatalities, but fatalities reported to date are concentrated in three migratory tree-roosting species, the hoary bat, the Eastern red bat, and the silver-haired bat, which collectively constitute greater than 70% of the reported fatalities at wind facilities for all North American regions combined (NAS 2007; Kunz et al. 2007a; Arnett et al. 2008; Arnett and Baerwald 2013; Hein et al. 2013).
It is unclear to what extent this conclusion reflects sample bias as we have few reports from the southwestern U.S., especially Texas and Oklahoma where there is high installed wind capacity and a very different bat fauna. Higher percentages of cave dwelling bats have been recorded at wind energy facilities in the Midwest (e.g., Jain et al. 2011), and the few available studies indicate that Brazilian free-tailed bats can constitute a substantial proportion (41–86%) of the bats killed at facilities within this species’ range (Arnett et al. 2008; Miller 2008; Piorkowski and O’Connell 2010). However, because the free-tailed bat is a very abundant species where it occurs, it is uncertain whether this species is at greater risk than other species.
Several studies have shown a peak in bat fatalities in late summer and early fall, coinciding with the migration season of tree bats (Kunz et al. 2007a; Arnett et al. 2008; Baerwald and Barclay 2011; Jain et al. 2011), although fatalities during spring migration has been observed for some species at some facilities (Arnett et al. 2008).
High fatalities of migratory tree bats observed within the range of these species may be explained by the possibility that they are attracted to turbines (e.g., Horn et al. 2008). Attraction may result from sounds produced by turbines, a concentration of insects near turbines, and bat mating behavior (Kunz et al. 2007a; Cryan 2008; Cryan and Barclay 2009). Analysis of bat carcasses beneath turbines found large percentages of mating readiness in male hoary, eastern red and silver-haired bats, indicating that sexual readiness coincides with the period of high levels of fatalities in these species (Cryan et al. 2012).
While direct collision with turbine blades is thought to be responsible for most of the bat fatalities observed at wind facilities (Horn et al. 2008), Baerwald et al. (2008) suggested that a large percentage of observed bat fatality may be due to barotrauma, i.e., injury resulting from suddenly altered air pressure. Fast-moving wind turbine blades create vortices and turbulence in their wakes, and it has been hypothesized that bats experience rapid pressure changes as they pass through this disturbed air, potentially causing internal injuries leading to death. However, forensic examination of bat carcasses found at wind energy facilities suggests that the importance of barotrauma as a proportion of bat mortality, is substantially less than originally hypothesized (Rollins et al. 2012; see also Grodsky et al. 2011).
Bat occupancy is influenced by nightly wind speed and temperature (Weller and Baldwin 2012), and some studies indicate that bat fatalities occur primarily on nights with low wind speed and typically increase immediately before and after the passage of storm fronts. Weather patterns therefore may be a predictor of bat activity and fatalities, and mitigation efforts that focus on these high-risk periods may reduce bat fatalities substantially (Arnett et al. 2008; Baerwald and Barclay 2011; Weller and Baldwin 2012; Arnett and Baerwald 2013).
Several recent estimates indicate that the number of birds killed at wind energy facilities is a very small fraction of the total annual human-related bird mortality and two to four orders of magnitude lower than mortality from other factors, including feral and domestic cats, power transmission lines, buildings and windows, and communication towers, (NAS 2007; Longcore 2012; Calvert et al. 2013; Loss et al. 2013a,b).
Substantial effort is made to estimate collision risk of birds and bats prior to the siting and construction of wind energy facilities under the premise that high-activity sites will pose an unacceptable risk to these species and should be avoided. Wind energy companies are also employing a variety of operational techniques and technologies, such as radar, to minimize fatalities of vulnerable species such as bats and raptors at operating wind energy facilities.
For example, there is interest in relating differences in bat fatality rates among wind facilities to landscape characteristics (e.g., topography, landscape types, proximity to landscape features such as mountain ridges or riparian systems). Relating fatality rates to features within the immediate area of a turbine could be useful in siting wind energy facilities and locating turbines within a site to avoid higher-risk areas (Kunz et al. 2007a; Kuvlesky et al. 2007; NAS 2007; Arnett et al. 2008).
Studies have shown that the displacement of grassland bird species in response to wind energy development is species-specific and the displacement response of individual species may be inconsistently observed (Hatchett et al. 2013; Loesch et al. 2013; Stevens et al. 2013).
It has been suggested that high site fidelity in bird species may reduce displacement effects in the short-term and displacement would become more pronounced over time, but this has yet to be demonstrated (Strickland et al. 2011). It is also unknown whether bird species will habituate to wind energy facilities and whether disturbance effects diminish over time. In one study, abundance of some species declined during construction of the wind energy facility, but the effect disappeared after the facility became operational (Pearce-Higgins et al. 2012).
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