The Shocking Truth About Raptors

Every year, thousands of birds are electrocuted when they collide with power lines. Leo Suazo, special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in Colorado, says bird electrocutions have been documented in all 50 states, but they may be worst in the West, where there are fewer trees for birds to perch on. Wildlife biologist Rick Harness of Colorado-based EDM International, an electric utility consultant, explains, "We have lots of golden eagles out West, and they tend to be a plains and prairie animal. But if you put power lines out in those areas they will perch on them."

On Kodiak Island, Alaska, bald eagles flock to fish waste outside factories and perch on the poles of utility cooperatives such as the Kodiak Electric Association. When dry, their feathers do not conduct electricity, but their wrists and wing bones do. If they contact two wires or simultaneously touch a wire and something grounded, like a transformer, they usually die and frequently cause power outages. Prompted by the Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, the cooperatives have become proactive in accommodating avifauna by, among other things, increasing the distance between wires so that two contacts can’t be made, insulating wires and covering exposed connectors. Kodiak Electric Operations Manager Lanny Van Meter says, "It’s a losing battle to fight these measures."

In a landmark case, the Colorado utility cooperative Moonlake Electric Association was charged in U.S. District Court in 1999 for violating two federal acts, fined $100,000, and forced to retrofit its wiring. Suazo, who was the FWS special agent to investigate the case, says, "Moonlake is a shot heard around the nation."

Each time a concerned citizen or state wildlife agent reports an electrocuted bird, the FWS sends special agents to investigate. At the end of 2001, new agents were hired with specialized training in bird electrocutions. Suazo says, "It’s not going away. We’re always going to be responding to those calls." The nonprofit group HawkWatch International is training volunteers to identify electrocution "hot spots," locate electrocuted or perching birds, and recommend retrofitting of problem poles.

Both the FWS and EDM International sponsor workshops on bird-friendly strategies for utility companies. The first suggested-practices manual on the subject was published by the Rural Electrification Administration in March 1972.