This page summarizes publicly available information 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). 2015. 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 die as a result of collisions with wind turbines. Some species also experience additional adverse impacts, including direct and indirect habitat loss from the construction and operation of wind energy facilities. Indirect effects include displacement by avoidance of otherwise suitable habitat and 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” from multiple studies on a question of interest. A single 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 Although more information is available on direct impacts to individuals, substantial uncertainty remains about our understanding of the population-level consequences of collision mortality and our ability to predict collision risk.
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.
The information on this page has undergone, and all future updates will undergo, expert review before being posted on the web. Literature citations supporting the information presented are denoted in parentheses; full citations can be found below.
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 reduce the risk of potentially catastrophic effects to wildlife from unmitigated climate change. Wind energy also provides several other environmental benefits including substantially reduced water withdrawals and consumption and decreased emissions of mercury and other sources of air and water pollution associated with the burning of fossil fuels (NRC 2010). However, adverse impacts of wind energy facilities to wildlife have been documented, particularly to individual birds and bats (Arnett et al. 2008; Strickland et al. 2011). Impacts to wildlife populations have not been documented (NAS 2007), but the potential for biologically significant impacts continues to be a source of concern as populations of many species overlapping with proposed wind energy development are experiencing long-term declines as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation, disease, non-native invasive species, and increased mortality from numerous other anthropogenic activities (e.g., NABCI 2009; Arnett and Baerwald 2013).
The amount of research in the peer-reviewed literature continues to grow, reflecting the continued interest in understanding wind-wildlife interactions. 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 as well as un-published, publicly available reports that have undergone expert, technical review.
Installed wind energy capacity in the United States continues to grow and was estimated at approximately 66,000 megawatts (MW) at the end of Q1 in 2015. Land-based wind turbines have grown substantially in power output over the years; the power rating of turbines installed at new projects ranges from 1.5-3.0 MW. Modern turbine towers range in height from 200–260 feet (60-80 m) and turbine blades create a rotor swept area of 75-130 m (250–425 feet) in diameter, resulting in blade tips that can reach over 140 m (460 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 and larger turbines producing the same or more electricity than early facilities; current projects have wide spacing between turbines and cover thousands of acres. The most current wind market information can be found at the American Wind Energy Association’s website.
The number of studies reporting results of collision fatality monitoring at operating land-based wind energy facilities has increased substantially over the years, and more than 100 studies conducted at over 70 projects are publicly available (e.g., Strickland et al. 2011; Arnett and Baerwald 2013; Loss et al. 2013a; Erickson et al. 2014). Protocols for carcass searching have become more standardized, facilitating comparisons of results from separate studies. Much uncertainty remains as to the distribution, timing, and magnitude of collision fatalities in both birds and bats. Some of this uncertainty reflects the lack of data from particular 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, the Pacific Northwest, and California. We also do not know whether publicly available reports are representative of what is occurring at the 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. 2007; Kuvlesky et al. 2007; NAS 2007; Arnett et al. 2008; Strickland et al. 2011), although collisions with turbine towers are also possible. Fatality rates from most studies range from three to five birds per MW per year1 for all species combined and adjusted for detection biases (e.g., Strickland et al. 2011, Loss et al. 2013a, Erickson et al. 2014); no study has reported more than 14 bird fatalities per MW per year (e.g., Strickland et al. 2011). 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. 2013a). It is unknown to what extent these differences reflect the sample bias discussed earlier.
1 Fatality rates are typically reported on a per turbine basis or on the basis of nameplate capacity (MW). We report fatality rates on the basis of nameplate capacity to account for differences in turbine capacity, which range from 100 kw to 2.5 MW or more, but we acknowledge that this reporting format also has difficulties.
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 also 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 or 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 appears to be 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). One study recorded higher red bat fatalities at unlit turbines compared to those using red aviation lights; no differences were observed for other bat species between lit and unlit turbines (Bennett and Hale 2014). 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 and/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 often 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 most common rotor-swept zone (<500 feet; <150 m) (Mabee and Cooper 2004; Mabee et al. 2006).
Collisions of small passerines (<31 cm in length) account for approximately 60% of fatalities at U.S. wind facilities (Loss et al. 2013a; Erickson et al. 2014); small passerines comprise more than 90% of all landbirds (Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013). Most small passerine 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 are also relatively frequent fatalities, particularly in the western U.S. where these species are more common. These groups are far less abundant than passerines, 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 unknown. 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 rate of fatalities of coastal birds is somewhat different than that reported at coastal facilities in the Netherlands (e.g., Winkelman 1992; Stienen et al. 2008; Everaert 2014), but this could be owing to the limited information from coastal wind facilities, particularly in the U.S. (Kingsley and Whittam 2007; NAS 2007).
Numbers of raptor fatalities on a per MWh basis appear to be declining substantially (67 – 96% depending on the species) at the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area as a result of repowering; smaller, low-capacity turbines are being replaced with taller, higher-capacity turbines (Smallwood and Karas 2009). Larger turbines have fewer rotations per minute, which may be partly responsible for lower raptor collision rates (NAS 2007). In addition, smaller turbines that use lattice support towers offer more perching sites for raptors, encouraging higher raptor occupancy in the immediate vicinity of the rotor swept area (NAS 2007) than large, modern turbines on tubular support towers.
At least 21 species of bats have been recorded as collision fatalities, but the majority of fatalities reported to date are from three migratory tree-roosting species (the hoary bat, the Eastern red bat, and the silver-haired bat) which collectively constitute almost 80% of the reported fatalities at wind facilities for all North American regions combined (NAS 2007; Kunz et al. 2007; Arnett et al. 2008; Arnett and Baerwald 2013; Hein et al. 2013).
It is unclear to what extent this conclusion reflects sample bias as there are few reports available from the southwestern U.S. (especially Texas and Oklahoma where there is high installed wind capacity) where a very different bat fauna is present than at most other facilities in the U.S. Higher percentages of cave dwelling bats have been recorded at wind energy facilities in the Midwest compared to other facilities in the U.S. (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, it is uncertain whether this species is at greater risk than other species because the Brazilian free-tailed bat is a very abundant species where it occurs.
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. 2007; Arnett et al. 2008; Baerwald and Barclay 2011; Jain et al. 2011), although a minor peak in fatalities during spring migration have been observed for some species at some facilities (Arnett et al. 2008).
It has been hypothesized that the relatively high number of recorded fatalities of migratory tree bats may be explained by the possibility that they are attracted to turbines (e.g., Horn et al. 2008); several factors that might attract these bats have been proposed, including sounds produced by turbines, a concentration of insects near turbines, and bat mating behavior (Kunz et al. 2007; Cryan 2008; Cryan and Barclay 2009). Infrared imagery has shown bats exploring the nacelles of wind turbines from the leeward direction, especially at low wind speeds (Cryan et al. 2014). 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 rapidly 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. 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 suggested (Rollins et al. 2012; see also Grodsky et al. 2011).
Bat activity 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 could 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 et al. 2012; Calvert et al. 2013; Loss et al. 2014a,b,c; Loss et al. 2013a,b; Erickson et al. 2014).
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. 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. 2007; Kuvlesky et al. 2007; NAS 2007; Arnett et al. 2008).
Wind energy companies are also employing a variety of technologies and operational techniques to minimize fatalities of vulnerable species at operating wind energy facilities.
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 is observed inconsistently (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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