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Whirly Birds 

The wind-power entrepreneurs at Kenetech have spent millionsin vain tosolve this avian mystery: Why have hundredsof raptors, including golden eagles, died alongside the windmills of Altamont Pass?

Wednesday, Mar 29 1995
The winds are mine, as are the metal trees below, the velvet lime of Livermore, and the power to slay and devour furry, fuzzy creatures: Rabbits and mice and ground squirrels -- the warm, meaty, succulent rodents -- line my nest like trophies, they crumple so sweetly in my talons. Glide. Be patient. The sinews stretch in my seven-foot wings, the hunger calls and clenches. I'll soon see flesh beneath me, I'll strike like a sudden shadow, giving the doomed barely enough time to squeak before I deliver my black-feathered sucker punch from the sky. A small fawn would be nice today; my cruel beak has done justice to one or two. But glide. Find an easy squirrel. The thermals hold me like a hero, the breeze carries me on its shoulders -- should I swoop down to the metal trees? These thrones are the favored haunt of red-tails and vultures and my fellow golden eagles: eggshell white and bare as a newborn chick, three branches that spin with not a leaf on them to obscure the view. But my brain locks, choosing for me before I'm even aware, finding the object of my lust before my eye even records it, and I flap and tuck and dive, and the world is a blur, I'm a predatory bullet, pushing 50, 100, 150 mph -- and is a metal tree in the way? -- but I'm full out, feathers sleek, talons splayed toward that stupid, stump-still body, and I can see I've got him, he's dashing for a hole, but for this squirrel it's too late! It's too late! It's too ...

PPPFFFTTT! Decapitation, amputation, bird death. The sound of feathers flying into the windmills that churn and produce our beloved electricity. On the face of it the sound might seem rather benign -- it's not, after all, the kabloom of car bombs or the pop of machine guns spraying post offices. Birds die in collisions all the time, and unless you're a true avian aficionado, you might think the sound no more significant than the lump in your morning oatmeal.

But switch on the reading light (pppfffttt) and think again, for the sound of eagles expiring in midflight is a million-dollar threat to American dreams and greenbacks. It's a sound that's giving migraines to environmentalists and biologists, knocking the wind out of America's newly blossoming wind-power industry, and agonizing millions of concerned and otherwise green citizens who have long hailed wind-power as an absolute energy mitzvah: a nonpolluting, renewable electricity source that doesn't spew greenhouse gases or risk a Chernobyl.

It now appears that windmills are annually killing thousands of birds worldwide. Among the hundreds of local victims each year are red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, turkey vultures, assorted owls -- and federally protected species like Aquila chrysaetos, the golden eagle. And it turns out that the Bay Area -- specifically Altamont Pass in the hills above Livermore -- is the windmill bird-death capital of America.

"It's a very, very difficult dilemma," Arthur Feinstein tells me. Feinstein is program coordinator of the Golden Gate chapter of the National Audubon Society, one of dozens of environmental groups that was unfalteringly pro-wind energy until news of the ongoing avian slaughter at Altamont emerged. "An environmentally nonimpacting industry is a dream come true. But killing lots of birds," Feinstein sighs, "is not environmentally nonimpacting."

Pending a solution to the bird bloodletting, Audubon has called for a moratorium on the expansion of wind farms experiencing bird problems (the wind industry rejects this option). The group is also asking the wind industry not to build in critical bird habitats or migration routes, and to withdraw its whirling blades from places where "it's massacring large numbers of critters," Feinstein says. "I'm not sure the industry is willing to do that, either," he adds, "but they're taking steps. They can see that if they're going to be environmentally damaging, and especially if they're killing cute cuddly animals, they're going to be in trouble."

According to a California Energy Commission study, meanwhile, Altamont Pass windmills may have killed as many as 567 birds of prey over a recent two-year period. Some of the raptors, as they're known, die after hitting transmission wires or electric poles. Since an unknown number of the slain are dragged off and eaten by scavengers, tabulating mortality figures is difficult, says wildlife biologist Sue Orloff, author of the 1992 report. But at least 39 golden eagles are killed in the pass each year, the study concludes. Wind companies looking to turn a buck and raptors cruising for a bite both seek open country with strong winds, Orloff notes: Birds use wind to conserve energy, the industry uses wind to create it.

And the mangled results of that shared wind lust isn't just an inconvenience: It's a crime. Killing even one red-tailed hawk, turkey vulture or other raptor -- in fact, killing almost any bird -- is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Killing a golden eagle violates the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act as well: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating whether the Altamont bird deaths merit prosecution. More importantly, rough estimates put California's golden eagle population at a modest 500 breeding pairs (owing to the length and costliness of population studies, definitive numbers haven't been recorded).

"If 500 is the right figure, then 39 deaths per year can represent quite a significant number," says Rich Ferguson, former energy chairperson for the California Sierra Club and research director for the nonprofit Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology. Ferguson -- and the wind industry -- hope that new studies currently underway will prove Altamont's golden eagle population is so robust that the losses aren't threatening the species. Is the Sierra Club pro-wind in the meantime? "As long as the industry's making an effort to solve the problem," Ferguson says, "most environmental groups are trying not to throw out the baby with the bathwater."

About The Author

Amy Linn


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