I encountered a gentleman not many months ago who was a proponent of clean air with an enthusiasm approaching militancy.
“Too much CO2 in the air; fossil fuels to blame.” The answer to this impending crisis was obvious to any right-thinking person: wind turbines. When I mentioned that turbines kill large numbers of birds and bats, he shrugged it off. “Species have gone extinct throughout history.” His statement is true, but to take that truth a step further and tacitly step aside while humans force animals into extinction seems a leap too far, even for ‘right-thinking’ persons.
Here was a man who expended all his concerns on clean air while ignoring all the interconnecting aspects of his environment. To be solely concerned with the continuation of humanity above all else is not only self-absorbed, but could lead to our own decline as a species.
There is a concept known as the “Keystone Species” that refers to certain forms of life which act as the backbone of an ecosystem; removing them from that environment would cause a cascade of negative consequences, the same way removing the keystone from an arch can cause the entire structure to lose stability or collapse. One of these species is the pileated woodpecker.
This large bird, at first glance, could be seen as destructive because as it excavates trees for insects, it creates large holes, and leaves them behind. But these holes serve a purpose: many animals who cannot hollow out their own recesses depend on the woodpecker to create them. Owls, bats, songbirds, flying squirrels, cavity-nesting ducks and many more use the cavities left behind for shelter to raise their young. The wood chips the woodpecker scatters soon decay and help enrich the soil. Eventually, when old trees are peppered with holes, they fall, leaving a light opening in the forest canopy to allow new-growth. To remove the pileated from their ecosystem would cause all the species that depend on it for their own lives to decline.
Another species which is the overlooked is the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Hummingbirds are so dependent on sapsuckers — who drill tiny sap wells in the bark of trees that hummingbirds require for calories during migration — they time their journey with the movements of sapsuckers. Many other species of mammals and birds depend on sapsuckers to survive between winter and spring.
Sapsuckers are unfortunately one of the causalities from wind turbines. As a bird that migrates at night, it cannot easily see the spinning turbine, and tens of thousands of these birds collide with them and die during the fall and spring migrations. Reducing the number of sapsuckers puts pressure on these other species that depend on them and, even if those dependent animals are not known to collide with wind turbines, the death of one can become the death of many.
A large percentage of our songbirds are nocturnal migrants, even if they are primarily active during the day. Included in the list are many beloved, colorful species such as the Baltimore oriole, many of whom do not make it to their end-migratory homes because of such collisions.
Even birds that exclusively fly during the day, such as vultures, eagles and other raptors are killed by wind turbines. Vultures, in particular, are declining worldwide. Without vultures — who purify our environment by eating carrion and destroying rabies, anthrax, brucellosis, botulism and other deadly bacteria — we are putting our society at greater risk for the spread and outbreak of such diseases.
The State of North America’s Birds report 2016 reads that 37 percent of birds in North America are in need of urgent conservation action, otherwise they will go extinct in the near future, and the majority of them are migratory. In addition, many commonly known and beloved birds are in steep declines, such as the Northern bobwhite, Eastern meadowlark and snowy owl. The reason for their decline is various man-made activity. But our livelihoods shouldn’t and don’t have to cause the extinction of others.
Wind energy may become an important part of the energy technology in our near future. But accepting the deaths that wind turbines cause as merely collateral damage is irresponsible. We may not be able to prevent all these deaths, but there are already people working on ways to re-design turbines so that the damage done is brought to a minimum. This also goes for other threats to wildlife, such as minimizing the effect of feral cats and other invasive species, both plant and animal.
For all of the children, of all of the species, for all of time.
Olsen-Hodges is co-founder of the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center of Virginia and Garvin is volunteer there.