On the Mortality of Eagles and the Unintended Consequences of Wind Turbines

eaglesandturbinesWithin the nest of an eagle, three or four eggs may be incubating at one time, but once the first chick hatches, the rest, if they manage to crack their shells, will often be at the mercy of their ruthless elder sibling. The instincts of a firstborn eagle are self-preservation, leading them to peck, bully, and push the other chicks to a point of parental neglect and eventual death. Experts describe this tragic pattern as Cainism, based on the biblical brothers, Cain and Abel.

“Apparently all eggs beyond the first are merely insurance policies against the first’s being infertile. Some species, like the crowned eagle, have never been recorded raising more than one chick, but even among small inoffensive aquilas [Latin: eagles], a surviving second is a rare phenomenon.”

Despite the iconic place of a full grown eagle in history and politics, there is little glory in the rearing of an eagle’s nest. By nature, they are predators of the lesser and weaker creatures of the animal kingdom, including members of their own family; a well known survival of the fittest approach that often lingers in the psyche of our capitalistic pursuit of happiness.

Benjamin Franklin, frustrated by the decision of the Founders to inadvertently idolize the predatory eagle because of its symbolic bravery, said this to his daughter in 1794:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watched the labor of a fishing hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”

Franklin went on to draw a parallel with the injustices of selfish men.

“…like those among men who live by sharping and robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy…He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…”

Why, then, do we still favor the eagle as an American treasure?

The answer is really quite simple.

No other bird flies higher in the sky. We look up and revere the one creature that can do, by nature, something that we, as humans, only aspire. Eagles embody the dream of absolute independence; the freedom to soar in any direction without the rule of anything or anyone more sovereign on the earth.

Independent voters have an equally personified reason for their adoration of eagles.

“Centrists no longer have to feel politically homeless; they have a history and a heritage. The Republicans have the elephant, the Democrats have the donkey, but the symbol for Centrism is the American eagle. Independent and patriotic, eagles don’t fly in flocks; they soar over the American landscape, possessing, above all, a sense of perspective.”

Unfortunately, in this new age of energy independence, sometimes that elevated perspective of a soaring eagle comes at a mortal price. The eyes of an eagle can become so focused on the earth below that these great birds will miss the dangers of man-made obstructions hindering their flight path.

Enter the wind turbines of 21st Century technology; monstrously tall blades that can reach up to 94 meters, well beyond the average height of a city building.

Last March, a California wind farm, known for killing a host of other birds, garnered federal attention after an eagle was found mangled at the foot of a turbine. According to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, American eagles may not  be pursued, shot, shot at, poisoned, wounded, killed, captured, trapped, collected, molested, or disturbed by anyone within the United States. Ultimately, the death of any eagle by human interference is a federal crime, punishable by up to $250,000 or two years in prison.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) opened an investigation against the California wind farm and quickly drafted an Eagle Conservation Plan Guide by April, focused almost entirely on the new challenges of balancing renewable wind energy with existing wildlife in the sky. However, once the Associated Press got wind of the story (pardon the pun), the collective media vacuum was off to the races, accusing the Obama Administration of an awful double standard. Even Stephen Colbert got in on the action.

Though an investigation was underway, both in California and elsewhere, critics were understandably concerned that eagles and other birds, including the rare and exotic, were simply becoming the acceptable casualties of a domesticated energy independence plan.

Seemed like a contradiction of values, they said. How could the administration be so emphatic about solving a natural crisis while being apathetic about the new crisis of nature that they were creating?

But apathy is the accusation, not the problem. Developing a successful wind farm that can harness natural energy without harming the environment is a process that requires constant reassessment. Wind farmers have not, by and large, been passive about the death of eagles or any other bird for that matter. Nor do wind farms pose a grave and unresolvable threat to our way of life.

Duke Energy, the largest electric power holding company in the United States, has been leading a very proactive approach. At most of their plants in Wyoming, a radar system has been installed to warn Duke biologists of incoming birds. This is followed by a two minute shut down process, “once the spotter notifies the control room.” Turbines stop and eagles fly.

Other wind farms, like those in Alameda County, California, have now committed to shutting down their turbines in the winter and replacing their “fast-spinning older models with larger ones that are easier for birds to avoid.” Their efforts have seemingly cut the death of eagles and other birds by 50 percent since 2005.

In other words, investigations are underway and solutions are being pursued. Perhaps not as fast as the word of an eagle’s death can travel through social media, but positive steps are being taken to avoid future accidents.

Retrospectively, some have argued that these companies failed to heed the warnings of local residents and conservationists who knew the farms were being built much too close to the nests and migration paths of these sacred eagles. But more than likely, those warnings lacked the volume they needed in a world of corporate dollars and political expectations.

Activists should take a page out of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission playbook. Initially, the PUC was on board with the goals of introducing independent energy in their state, giving the New Era Wind Farm sufficient freedom and legal authority to proceed with their energy project. But a “well-organized local opposition” helped to flag the company for lacking any reasonable plan to deal with the impact on eagles in the surrounding area. Their method was to document “the presence of eagles and other wildlife that could be affected.”

It’s never enough to simply be up in arms about the development of a wind farm because of a potential risk that those farms will damage wildlife. Government officials, like the PUC, need evidence and proof that wildlife are, indeed, already on or near these appropriated lands. Their existence on the land, if proven, can often be a sufficient means for thwarting construction.

Another asset, however fickle, is the media. For example, The Baltimore Sun recently used their headlines to become vocal about the challenges to a new Eastern Shore wind project in Somerset County, Maryland. With so many objections flooding in from both the Navy and Federal wildlife biologists, each insisting that the plant would do irreparable damage to the eagles, nests, and migration patterns of birds in the immediate vicinity, the wind farming company has already begun looking elsewhere for more suitable building locations.

Of course, if they are willing, wind farming companies like the one in Maryland are welcome to offer viable solutions for the security of local animals, including the eagle. These kings and queens of the sky are worthy of some serious forethought.

At the end of the day, all energy projects, whether they involve wind, oil, or gas, are bound to have unintended consequences and, at times, collateral damage, despite our best innovations of science and technology. The speed at which these inevitable consequences are addressed by the guilty and held accountable by the law is crucial to avoiding an environmental double standard.