Conservation

Saving Birds From Deadly Industrial Traps Isn’t Hard

There are easy ways to reduce bird deaths from manmade hazards. So why does the Trump administration want to blunt their legal enforcement?

In the past century, since America’s premier bird-protection law—the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA)—was passed by Congress, the threats to birds have changed drastically. Back then, hunters and poachers freely pursued birds of any species, during all seasons. They drove several species extinct and others to the brink; the resulting outcry led to the formation of the first Audubon societies and, ultimately, to the passage of the MBTA in 1918. The law makes it a crime to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill,” or “sell” a migratory bird or any of its parts, including nests, eggs, and feathers.

Today, thanks to the MBTA, the poaching of migratory birds has largely ceased in the U.S. But as those threats subsided, a new set emerged: Now birds must navigate a landscape riddled with industrial traps. To a hawk, a power pole is an ideal perch—but, unbeknownst to the majestic predator, electricity runs through it. From above, a small lake looks like a perfect resting spot for a tired goose—but, in fact, it contains toxic industrial waste and oils that wreck feathers, causing illness or death.  

These problems are often not difficult to solve, and over the decades the MBTA's protections and occasional fines have incentivized industries to work with the government and conservation groups to find simple solutions. Recently, though, the Trump administration has vouched for a new legal interpretation of the MBTA that would no longer hold companies accountable for bird deaths as a result of their equipment and work—allowing millions of birds to be killed annually with no consequence. It's one part of a larger effort currently underway to weaken protections for birds

To show how backward this effort is, here are five industrial traps for birds across the country—and the easy solutions that have been developed because of the MBTA.

Open Waste Pits

Pied-billed Grebe on an oil-covered evaporation pond at a commercial oilfield wastewater disposal facility in Wyoming. Photo: Pedro Ramirez Jr./USFWS

The problem: Companies in the business of extracting oil, gas, and minerals from the earth often wind up with toxic or otherwise corrosive waste. Many store their mixtures of oil, water, salts, and other chemicals in on-site ponds or transport them to large, commercial evaporation ponds for disposal. To a bird, these shallow ponds look like wetlands and lakes safe for resting after a long flight. It’s not until birds land that they learn the pond contains poisons and oils that coat their feathers, disrupting their heat insulation and flight, and sometimes drowning them.

It’s not only waterfowl that are killed. Songbirds are attracted to insects trapped in oil on the water’s surface; their struggling then attracts predators like hawks and owls. Many birds die and sink to the bottom, obscuring how many birds are killed this way. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services estimates that 500,000 to 1 million birds are killed annually in oil pits and evaporation ponds—but admits this is likely an underestimate.

The fix: Suspend a net over the pond. A net both breaks up the glare of an oil sheen on the water’s surface, which attracts birds, and hampers attempts to land. Any visible oils should be removed from ponds as soon as possible. The ideal solution, however, is to treat and dispose of waste in a closed system that doesn’t require open water in the first place.

Hanging a net over a toxic pond isn’t difficult or expensive. What's more, it’s just humane: Why wouldn’t you want to keep birds and other animals from dying in toxic pits if you can? 

Open Pipes

Western Screech Owl found inside a mining claim marker in Nevada. Photo: birdandhike

The problem: More than 3 million mining claims use open pipes, often made of PVC, as boundary markers. When left uncapped, these look like inviting spaces for cavity-nesting birds like bluebirds, woodpeckers, flycatchers, and kestrels, or safe resting and foraging spots for migratory birds. But once a bird flies inside a narrow pipe, it cannot spread its wings; unable to fly away, it slowly dies of stress, starvation, or dehydration. Any open-top vertical pipe is a potential hazard.

Sometimes dozens of dead birds have been found stacked inside these pipes. In 2008, Audubon California staff inspected a 20-foot-tall ventilation pipe, part of an abandoned irrigation system some 50 years old. Inside, they “discovered a seven-foot-long black mass composed entirely of decomposed carcasses of hundreds of dead birds and animals including kestrels, flickers, bluebirds and fence lizards.” Replicate this millions of times across the country to get an idea of the scale of these slow, senseless deaths.

The fix: Plug the open ends of the pipes or vents so birds and other animals can’t crawl inside, or replace them with solid markers. And remove any pipes not in use.

It’s a simple fix, simple enough that individual volunteers and Audubon chapters organize “pipe pulling” events to plug or remove open pipes.

More recently, the Bureau of Land Management itself has organized such events because plugging open pipes is part of government policy. After 116 conservation groups, including 33 Audubon chapters, sent a letter to the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service about the issue in 2015, the agencies issued guidance urging all mining claimants to replace open-pipe markers. With the new interpretation of the MBTA, any legal incentive to do so is gone. 

Speak up! If you're in favor of enforcing easy solutions to help save birds, urge your members of Congress to support a strong MBTA today. 

Power Line Collisions

Great Egrets fly near power lines in Illinois. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

The problem: Birds, especially large birds like hawks, eagles, and owls, are often distracted in flight—by mates, hunting, or territorial battle, for instance—and sometimes collide with powerlines strung up in their path. The crash, or the resulting fall, can kill or weaken them.

This is a problem over a century-old. The first known report of birds colliding with power lines was published in 1876; more than 100 birds, mostly Horned Larks, were killed on a three-mile-long section of telegraph line. It’s estimated that power-line collisions kill more birds each year than cars or wind turbines, numbering in the hundreds of thousands to millions of animals.

The fix: String balls or other markers on power lines to make them visible to birds.

You’ve likely seen these over the highway because it’s already common practice for utilities to install them. They’ve been doing it for decades. In 1989, utilities partnered with the government and the National Audubon Society to form the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee to address Whooping Crane collisions with power lines. Together, they’ve developed best practices to make power lines safer for all birds that are implemented across the country. This is the type of successful work and collaboration the MBTA spurs. 

Power Line Electrocutions

An electrocuted California Scrub-Jay hangs from a power line in Oregon. Photo: ZUMA Press Inc./Alamy

The problem: Power lines and poles make ideal perches from which birds can survey the landscape. Larger birds, like eagles and other raptors, are large enough that their outstretched wings can bridge the gap between two electrified parts. When that happens, their bodies complete the circuit; electricity flows through them, and they are electrocuted.

Electrocutions are more common during rain and snow because feathers become conductive. Golden Eagles are affected most, perhaps because they like to sit atop poles to dry out their wings in the sun. A survey of 4,090 poles in Montana found Golden Eagle electrocutions at 4.4 percent of poles—and 20 of them had electrocuted more than one eagle.

The fix: Space electrified parts (such as conducting wires) wider than an eagle’s wingspan. Where that's not possible, cover any electrified parts to prevent contact with perching birds.

It’s not hard for utilities to follow the guidelines developed by the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee to build power poles and space electrified lines to prevent bird electrocution. Again, a clear example of the easy solutions the MBTA can inspire. 

Communication Towers

Steady-burning red lights on communication towers attract birds like moths to a flame. Setting the lights to flash instead nearly eliminates the problem. Photo: Pavel Talashov/Alamy

The problem: These tall structures use lights to make their presence known to aircraft at night. These same lights attract and confuse birds, which use starlight to navigate, especially when it’s foggy or hazy. Birds will aggregate around and circle towers for hours on end, dying apparently from exhaustion or from colliding with the tower or its support wires. Circling towers can also burn off birds' fat reserves, increasing their chances of death during long migrations. An estimated 6 million birds are killed by communication towers each year.

The fix: Swap steady-burning red lights, a longtime custom among communication towers, for flashing red or white lights on tall towers. Eliminate lights altogether on towers that don't pose a risk to aircraft. 

Changing lightbulbs is a simple fix that makes a world of difference to birds. It also saves money for tower operators by reducing electricity costs. In fact, it’s such a clear, good fix that, in 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration issued guidance to all tower operators to change their lightbulbs to reduce bird deaths. Several months later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its own best practices reflecting those from the FAA.

While those running towers have the choice to comply, the MBTA compels them to do so. But with a weakened MBTA, there’s no incentive for tower owners to change their bulbs—unless they care about birds themselves. And research has shown that, in the absence of such laws or their enforcement, companies are unlikely to do what’s right all on their own.  

Hannah Waters is a senior associate editor at Audubon, covering climate change, conservation, and science news. She’s passionate about chickadees and seabirds. Find her on Twitter: @hannahjwaters

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