Vulnerability of avian populations to renewable energy production

Royal Society Publishing|Tara J. Conkling, Hannah B. Vander Zanden, Taber D. Allison, Jay E. Diffendorfer et. al.|February 25, 2022
CaliforniaImpact on Birds

This important paper highlights that population-wide impacts of avian mortality due to operating wind and solar facilities. The authors found that the effects of building a renewable energy project extends beyond the immediate facility and can span long distances across continental migration networks. The executive summary of the paper is provided below along with a portion of the paper's discussion. The full paper can be accessed at the document links on this page. 

Executive Summary

Renewable energy production can kill individual birds, but little is known about how it affects avian populations. We assessed the vulnerability of populations for 23 priority bird species killed at wind and solar facilities in California, USA. Bayesian hierarchical models suggested that 48% of these species were vulnerable to population-level effects from added fatalities caused by renewables and other sources. Effects of renewables extended far beyond the location of energy production to impact bird populations in distant regions across continental migration networks. Populations of species associated with grasslands where turbines were located were most vulnerable to wind. Populations of nocturnal migrant species were most vulnerable to solar, despite not typically being associated with deserts where the solar facilities we evaluated were located. Our findings indicate that addressing declines of North American bird populations requires consideration of the effects of renewables and other anthropogenic threats on both nearby and distant populations of vulnerable species.


Despite being the focus of massive conservation efforts [74–76], bird populations across NorthAmerica have declined by nearly 3 billion individuals in less than 50 years [27], and similar bird declines are occurring across the world (e.g. [77]). Although we focused on direct mortality, renewable energy also may cause indirect and sub-lethal effects, for example, through displacement of birds and disruption of habitat. Furthermore, wind and solar are part of a suite of anthropogenic stressors that are relevant to avian populations. For example, climate change, habitat loss and degradation,pesticides, killing by domestic cats, and collision with transmission lines, vehicles and buildings[25,78–81] all can directly or indirectly affect bird populations. Although the approach we outline here could be used to interpret threats to species affected by these other stressors, most of them are comparatively well-understood. In contrast, infrastructure associated with renewable energy is an emerging and poorly understood threat to birds. As the build-out of renewable energy continues, thehabitat and species-specific patterns in vulnerability we modelled for this small set of species affected in a single region will become broadly relevant to a large suite of species across the planet.

This study illustrates, for the first time and for a large, taxonomically diverse suite of priority species, both the vulnerability of a subset of avian populations to renewable energy development, and the manner in which the demographic influence of renewable energy facilities may extend far beyond the site at which fatalities occur. Our inference is underpinned by novel integration of subpopulation size estimates intodemographic models within isotopically determined catchment areas. As such, our analyses highlight the importance of incorporating spatial ecology into assessments of the demographic relevance to avian populations of anthropogenic stressors such as renewable energy. Such assessments also have important conservation implications. In the case of renewable energy, decisions about facility siting, investment and development, as well as management and mitigation actions, will be most effective if they consider both local and non-local impacts to focal species, and if their demographic frame of reference extends to breeding, wintering or stopover habitat far from where the facility is located.



May 19, 2022


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