What Offshore Wind Energy Can Teach Us About Seabirds

We’re learning more about seabirds from the monitoring studies required for offshore wind energy development.
A Northern Gannet flies toward camera with grass in its beak.
Northern Gannet. Photo: Joshua Galicki/Audubon Photography Awards

Seabirds spend much of their lives far offshore in the vast ocean, making them hard to study. This gap in knowledge might be starting to change, however, now that we need to understand how offshore wind energy could impact birds before and after construction. Audubon has long advocated for responsibly sited renewable energy, and fortunately data from land-based wind farms tell us that wind turbines can be properly sited and operated in ways that avoid, minimize, and mitigate bird impacts. Now, to meet the nation’s immense needs for energy capacity and infrastructure, attention is shifting from land to the ocean as a go-to place to generate this renewable power source.

Audubon’s Survival by Degrees report reveals that more than 350 North American bird species are at risk of extinction due to climate change. Transitioning to renewable energy sources would slow the current rate of global temperature rise and avert the worst catastrophe for birds and people. But proper research is needed to ensure that offshore wind power projects don’t harm seabird populations through displacement or loss of habitat, barrier effects that reroute migratory movements, or direct injury through collision.

We are about to learn a lot about seabird behavior, thanks to the monitoring studies required for offshore wind energy development. For example, we are already discovering the height at which birds fly over the sea, as well as the factors that influence the various heights they use for migration and foraging. Flight height is a key bit of information for siting offshore wind because it can tell us the risk birds face as they pass the rotor-swept zone (RSZ) of wind turbine generators.  

Offshore wind energy is also prompting researchers to study other facets in the lifestyles of seabirds. For example, it turns out that not all seabirds learn to avoid offshore wind farms—some species are actually drawn to them to perch and feed. Research from around the world indicates that seabirds are either subject to displacement around, attraction to, or neutral association with offshore wind development. Wind farms can cause some species of gulls and terns to deviate more than a mile out of their way to avoid the structures. For loons, this displacement distance can reach seven miles.

Monitoring studies will help us learn what triggers avoidance behavior and tell us far more about avian migration in the near future. Satellite tags, implanted or attached radio devices, acoustic monitoring, and even radar systems and thermal imaging are some of the tools we’ll be hearing about in years to come. As we learn more about seabird species, Audubon will continue to support wind energy that avoids, minimizes, and mitigates impacts on birds and the places they need. 

This week, Hog Island Audubon Camp hosted a Making Bird Connections lecture about birds and wind energy with Seabird Institute’s Dr. Don Lyons and Audubon’s VP of Water Conservation Julie Hill-Gabriel. Visit Birds and Clean Energy to learn more about Audubon’s approach to renewable energy.