what’s killing the birds

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besners poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other…

Okay, bird lovers who don’t want to watch rare songbirds thunk into wind turbines have a point—turbines do kill birds. But a new study shows that fossil fuel plants kill more.

It seems weird, kind of, that birds are so bad at flying. You’d think if you had specifically evolved to do something—i.e., skimming through the air trilling a beautiful song of joy—you would also have evolved a sense of how to do it without being killed—i.e., that if a scything blade/giant building is right ahead, don’t wham straight into it. However, the way birds navigate is complex, and frontal vision isn’t necessarily the main sense they’re using. Bird vision has evolved for hunting small animals or insects, so they can be extremely sensitive to movement while less able to detect static objects.

In his forthcoming study in the journal Renewable Energy, Benjamin K. Sovacool of the National University of Singapore proposes a new way of contextualizing the number of bird deaths caused by energy generators. He takes a bunch of studies of wind farms, nuclear power plants, and fossil fuel plants in Europe and North America from 2009 and shows the number of bird deaths per gigawatt hour of energy produced. It seems sort of crude and awful, but if we accept that some bird death due to human activity is inevitable (God, humans—we’re just machines for killing the universe’s happiness, seriously), this seems like a reasonable way to measure efficiency.

Actually, I partially take it back about humans—Sovocool finds that the main thing killing birds is in fact cats. But Sovocool’s study concludes: “Wind farms killed approximately 20,000 birds in the United States in 2009 but nuclear plants killed about 330,000 and fossil fueled power plants more than 14 million.”

The bird deaths caused by wind turbines are the result of collisions—with moving or stationary turbine blades, towers and nacelles (a kind of cover that houses the generator and gearbox), and distribution lines. Wind turbines can affect other flying species too, even if they’re just flying nearby: bats don’t even have to collide with the turbines, as the change in air pressure near the blades can cause internal hemorrhaging in these little guys. And some birds are more vulnerable than others; apparently ducks are especially clumsy fliers, and heavy birds like swans or cranes are particularly prone to collisions.

Like wind turbines, nuclear power plants kill birds through collision. However, Sovocool notes, they also kill birds through uranium mining. Open pit uranium mining can cause the formation of contaminated lakes, which kill hundreds of birds per plant.

Fossil fuel plants—coal, oil, and natural gas—have the same problems. Sovocool points out that these plants “induce avian deaths at various points throughout their fuel cycle: upstream during coal mining, collision and electrocution with operating plant equipment, and poisoning and death caused by acid rain, mercury pollution, and climate change.” Coal mining causes deforestation, which reduces bird habitat and nesting areas. In fact, because fossil fuel has such a heavy impact on the environment as a whole, Sovocool finds that it affects the entire life-cycle of birds, reducing births as well as causing deaths: “Mercury exposure to albatross, falcons, mallards, terns, gulls and other seabirds, woodstorks, pheasants, and bald eagles has been proven in laboratory studies and biological monitoring of real birds to lead to fewer eggs, fewer produced young, and reduced survival rates.”

Then there’s climate change, which is so far-reaching and unpredictable in its effects that it’s hard to estimate exactly how badly it will affect bird populations. Sovocool offers this snapshot of what we can expect: “Looking at the mid-range scenarios in climate change expected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Thomas et al. projected that 15–37% of all species of birds will be committed to extinction by 2050.”

So while wind turbines have their problems, they seem to be better for birds than the other sources of energy on which we predominantly rely. Personally, I’m waiting for the day when cats make up for their inherent amorality by inventing some kind of nap-powered generator. It really seems like the least they can do. Until then, while it’s not fun to watch the endangered bald eagle brain itself against a wind turbine, it’s probably the best way to keep at least a few of them around.

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besners poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other journals, and her radio work has aired on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, Outfront, and The Next Chapter. Her first book, The Id Kid, was published in 2011 by Véhicule Press, and was named as one of The National Post’s Best Poetry Books of the Year.

Twenty years ago tomorrow, Salman Rushdie made a surprise visit to Canada while living in hiding under the fatwa decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini. It was an historic occasion—not just an opportunity for the embattled author of The Satanic Verses to enjoy the rare company of his fellow authors, but for an entire country to unite in support of free expression.

How bad is the current outbreak?

The goose farm virus has mutated into a more terrifying strain that seems more likely to infect wild birds. The virus, which is also a form of H5N1, was first identified in North America in the winter of 2021 and has since spread throughout the US, into Mexico, and throughout Central and South America. All continents are currently affected, with the exception of Australia and Antarctica, where it will most likely soon spread.

The current outbreak has killed — or forced farmers to cull — more than half a billion poultry worldwide, a simply mind-boggling number of birds.

Estimating the virus’s damage to wild birds is far more difficult.

In the US, suspected or confirmed cases of H5N1 in wild birds are in the tens of thousands, according to a study published in April. Reporting by the Guardian revealed that the flu has killed more than 50,000 birds in the UK. In Eastern Canada alone, roughly 40,000 birds have been reported as sick or dead, likely linked to the flu, according to Stephanie Avery-Gomm, a research scientist with the Canadian government, who cited her preliminary, unpublished research.

Yet most of these numbers are almost certainly underestimates. Governmental organizations lack the funding necessary to test each dead bird. In addition, a lot of people pass away at sea or in remote places with no surveillance.

Testing in the US tends to focus only on a small number of avian species, or on birds that die en masse, according to Johanna Harvey, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland who studies avian influenza. That leaves out smaller-scale outbreaks. Plus, global reporting of H5N1 cases in wild birds is often inconsistent or incomplete, according to a preprint paper published earlier this month.

This implies that, according to scientists Marcel Klaassen and Michelle Wille, “only a fraction of outbreaks in wildlife have been detected and appropriately reported.” The paper has not yet undergone formal peer review.

According to the paper by Klaassen and Wille, the actual number is probably in the millions worldwide. Although scientists are unable to pinpoint the exact number, the inconsistent data they do have raises serious concerns.

“We have never seen these kinds of numbers with an influenza outbreak in wild birds before,” Puryear, of Tufts, said, noting that study was not his work.

What avian flu means for biodiversity

According to Puryear, the virus that is killing birds is extremely “promiscuous,” which means that it can infect and sicken a variety of species. Researchers have discovered it in a variety of animals, including American white pelicans, snowy owls, bald eagles, and vultures.

Birds that nest in colonies have been hit especially hard. These include things like snow geese, terns, and double-crested cormorants. More than 20,000 possible cases of influenza in eastern Canada, according to Avery-Gomm, were linked to northern gannets, large, colonial seabirds that live mostly on the ocean.

Scientists worry that these deaths could significantly reduce some bird populations, particularly those that are already tiny.

Since March, more than 20 California condors in the Southwest have died, and most of them tested positive for avian flu. The largest bird in North America, with a wingspan that can reach more than 9 feet, the California condor almost went extinct in the 1980s. A successful captive breeding program revived the population, which now stands at roughly 500 worldwide, though they’re still listed by the US government as endangered.

Last summer, meanwhile, bird flu knocked out more than half of Lake Michigan’s population of Caspian terns, another threatened species.

“Large die-offs can impact populations of these species for decades and may contribute to species collapse and further ecosystem damage, particularly given the critical declines seen in North American bird biodiversity over the last half century,” scientists wrote in the April study, which tallied reported and suspected cases of H5N1 in North American birds.

Indeed, prior to the current outbreak, birds were already declining in nearly all habitats in the US, according to Cornell University’s State of the Birds report. Roughly half of all bird species are known (or likely) to be in decline globally.

More troubling still is that avian influenza is also killing many mammals, including foxes, coyotes, mink, and seals. Earlier this year, officials reported that bird flu killed almost 3,500 seal lions in Peru. That’s worrying on a whole different level — because humans are mammals. Could this avian flu become a pandemic?

The frightening link between infected wild birds and human health

No, avian influenza is not likely to start a pandemic in its current form. Although H5N1 has infected hundreds of people over the years, many of them have died, the cases are typically associated with very high exposure to infected poultry. From a biological perspective, the virus is ill-suited to subjugate our immune systems and proliferate rapidly throughout human populations.

Our issue is the rapid evolution of viruses, particularly influenza viruses. They can swap whole sections of their genomes with other viruses if they infect the same hosts, in addition to mutating. This evolution may have given them the means to multiply more readily in mammals, which would increase their threat level against humans in the right conditions. (My coworker Keren Landman and I go into further detail about this here.) ).

Although there is still little chance that the virus will become dangerous to humans, the outbreak in wild birds could encourage it in that direction.

Because only poultry farms were typically severely infected during previous outbreaks, nations were able to contain the spread by putting large flocks of sick farm birds to death and implementing other biosecurity precautions. That’s what happened during the outbreak in 2014 and 2015. But in this instance, wild birds are also a source of extremely dangerous influenza. Thus, despite farmer efforts to control wild birds, H5N1 could still spread to domestic populations.

This is happening already: Most recent outbreaks on farms were started by wild birds, not farm-to-farm spread, Yuko Sato, a poultry veterinarian at Iowa State University, said in a briefing for reporters last month. Infected wild birds can spread the virus through their feces or breath when they flock to reservoirs near farms, or stop over while migrating. One reason wild birds are likely to enter farms in the first place is that so much of their natural habitat has been destroyed.

“The problem is that even with all of this work to make farms more secure, it won’t help if there are a lot of diseased wild birds,” infectious disease ecologist Nichola Hill of the University of Massachusetts Boston stated.

Once wild birds contaminate farms, the risks skyrocket. Because they have more bodies to grow in, viruses evolve much more quickly in animals that are closely packed together. According to Puryear, they have also been observed to acquire adaptations from mammals that improve their capacity for reproduction, though it’s unclear why.

The other issue is that influenza viruses have a greater chance of directly infecting mammals when they are common in wild birds. Animals that come into contact with birds, such as seals and foxes, have contracted the virus. Additionally, the flu viruses can acquire characteristics that increase their danger to humans as these microbes reproduce within their cells.

This is not just theoretical. In a recent study, Puryear found that some H5N1 viruses that infected seals in New England had genetic changes that have been shown to make them more efficient at replicating within the cells of mammals. Researchers have found similar adaptations in H5N1 viruses found in foxes and mink. All of these animals likely got sick from wild birds.

However, there is some encouraging news: the virus is not only incapable of causing a pandemic due to its biological makeup, but the US government has also accumulated vaccines, including those that are specific to H5N1. Additionally, there are bird vaccines; my colleague Kenny Torrella discusses them here. ).

Puryear remarked, “It’s not Covid,” alluding to the fact that coronavirus vaccinations were not on hand at the time of the pandemic. “In theory, if this becomes a problem, we should be able to respond quickly.” ”.

FAQ

What virus is killing birds?

The worldwide bird flu outbreak that began in 2020 has led to the deaths of millions of domesticated birds and spread to wildlife all over the globe.

What is causing the decline of the bird population?

NARRATOR: Birds are losing the habitats they need, places to live, find food, rest, and raise their young. They face many other threats as well—from free-roaming cats and collisions with glass, to toxic pesticides and insect declines.

Why are songbirds dying?

As habitats are removed or destroyed, it throws the timing off and puts the birds in danger. Scientists are also seeing an uptick in wildlife illnesses, which Laura Kearns, a wildlife biologist with the Division of Wildlife at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, says could be related to climate change.

Why are there a lot of dead birds?

If you are seeing a lot of dead birds, and this is fairly recent occurrence, you may be in an area with a high occurrence of avian flu. You can check with the CDC website to see if avian flu is prevalent in your area.