How does the coexistence of wind turbines and migratory birds work?

Wind and solar energy are the main pillars of the energy transition. However, in the field of wind energy, there is always criticism from conservationists. The concern (and reality) is that birds and other flying creatures such as bats could collide with wind turbine blades. In two studies, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior and the University of East Anglia in England collected GPS data on the flight behavior of various bird species that repeatedly collide with wind turbines. The aim of the studies is to provide data that will enable the safe expansion of renewable energy sources with the least possible impact on wildlife.

Wind energy endangers migratory birds

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is currently occupying countries around the world. By 2050, European onshore wind energy capacity is expected to nearly quadruple. And other countries are also working hard to increase the share of wind energy in the power supply. There is no denying that this will have consequences for nature. However, these effects can be minimized.

We know from previous studies that there are more suitable locations for the construction of wind turbines than we need for climate-neutral energy generation. By better assessing biodiversity risks, such as bird collision risks, early in the planning process, we can mitigate the impact of these developments on wildlife while still meeting our climate targetssaid Jethro Gauld, a PhD student in the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences and one of the lead authors of the study.

Researchers identify hotspots

An international team of 51 researchers from 15 countries, including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Konstanz, identified hotspots in Europe where birds are exceptionally sensitive to the construction of wind turbines or power lines. To do this, the team evaluated GPS data from 1,454 birds from a total of 27 species. The researchers focused on large gliders such as white storks. Birds such as spoonbills, eagle owls, whooper swans, Iberian imperial eagles and the aforementioned white storks are particularly at risk because they often remain at heights where collisions can occur.

“GPS tracking provides highly accurate location and elevation data that cannot be determined by direct observation, especially over long distances“, says Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior. For the first time, the study brought together GPS data from so many bird species. The data shows that the greatest risk is along coastal migratory routes and near The construction of new wind turbines and high-voltage lines must therefore be reduced as much as possible in such very vulnerable areas.

Black kites avoid windmills

Another focus of the researchers was insights into improving energy infrastructure planning. †With GPS tracking, we can understand exactly how the birds behave when they fly close to the turbines. Knowing how close they fly and whether wind or other factors affect their flight behavior can help reduce collision frequency so that new wind farms can be planned accordinglysays Carlos Santos of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior.

In a second study, the researchers examined and evaluated the GPS data of 126 black kites approaching the wind turbines. During their migration, these birds of prey fly over the Strait of Gibraltar, a hotspot for both bird migration and wind farms.

The data showed that the black kites do not fly directly to the wind turbines, but start dodging a kilometer away. †The birds therefore recognize the danger posed by the wind turbines and keep an appropriate safe distance from them‘ said Santos. Such findings should help identify regions where wind farms endanger migratory birds as little as possible.