Birds and windmills

If you attend talks about alternative forms of energy, you can often find people in the audience challenging the use of wind power by saying that windmill blades kill a lot of birds. This gives many people pause because those who support alternative energy sources also tend to be those who support humane treatment of animals and the idea of birds being sliced by the blades is worrisome.

Recently Donald Trump at a rally in Pennsylvania’s coal country raised that same argument against windmills and other forms of alternative energy, in his typical exaggerated style of talking in superlatives.

“And honestly, it’s not working so good. I know a lot about solar. I love solar. But the payback is what, 18 years? Oh great, let me do it. Eighteen years,” he said, turning to wind power. “The wind kills all your birds. All your birds, killed. You know, the environmentalists never talk about that.”

All our birds killed? That sounds pretty alarming, no?

I was at one such meeting where this same point was made by an audience member. Another audience member whom I knew who is as much an animal lover as anyone immediately got up and said that this bird argument was phony and that the fossil fuel industry deliberately propagates it and actually plants people at such talks to spread this idea. In fact, she said, the number of birds killed by windmills is tiny compared to how they die in other ways.

It is true that windmills kill hundreds of thousands of birds per year. But the number of birds that are killed by flying into glass windows runs into the hundreds of millions. But by far the largest number is killed by cats and that number runs into the billions.

I had not appreciated how nimble cats must be to be so successful at killing birds. Baxter the Wonder Dog barks and chases after birds who happen to drop by our yard but he has never come anywhere close to catching one. I don’t know if he actually wants to catch one or simply play with a bird since he has never exhibited any predatory instincts. But cats seem to be incredibly good bird predators. I can’t imagine how they do it since you would think that having the ability to fly would enable birds to elude them quite easily.


  1. blf says

    This calls for an test: Glue some feathers to teh trum-prat (suggested glue: tar), and count how many times you have to launch him at a windmill from a trebuchet before he is sliced into bits. Repeat, using all the other republicansthugs, to obtain an empirical probability curve. Main problem here is what to do with all the bits of sliced thug…

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Scaring birds away from windmills with whistles on the vanes apparently works (somewhat), but drives humans crazy (a lot).

    I would think broad, bright stripes on the vanes might help, but have never seen (pictures of) any attempts at this.

  3. says

    LED lights on the blades apparently helps, some.

    I live near a lot of windmills and have visited the bases of a couple of them -- never seen any sign of dead anything except beer cans and condoms. Perhaps there are scavangers eating the corpses, or perhaps there aren’t that many corpses.

  4. Roj says

    All of our cats have been house cats, but we had one we would let out on a line, with a harness on. I once saw a bird (sparrow) flying quickly by, and she turned and leaped and caught it in her mouth…

    Given the number of people who let their cats roam outside, and the number of feral cats roaming around, I can believe that these less domesticated versions catch an unfortunately large number of birds.

  5. mnb0 says

    There is a very simple and highly effective way to prevent cats catching birds: a small bell around their neck. It’s also highly amusing to observe their astonishment when they stalk their prey perfectly, take the last decisive jump and …. the bird flies away.

  6. Lofty says

    Pet cats are only a part of the problem, feral cats are far far worse. Belling a cat can reduce bird kill by your pet but a smart cat will work out ways to stalk silently. Simple answers to complex problems are often quite useless.

    And wind turbines overall are much more benign that oil and coal ash poisoned wetlands.

  7. machintelligence says

    Birds aren’t all that bright. I strongly suspect that the majority of those caught by cats are young birds who haven’t figured out the world yet. My experience with farm cats indicates that they are far superior small mammal predators. Mice, voles and ground squirrels make up the majority of their prey.

  8. enkidu says

    I agree that this is total snow job. Definitely most birds are killed by predators, or for human made objects, windows. also agree with Lofty and machine intelligence. Though have to say our cat has caught lots of rats, which eat birds eggs, but very few birds. He likes to bring his trophies home!

  9. keljopy says

    Actually, where I worked at least (field tech for a bio consulting firm), windmills were a lot harder on bats than on birds. Due to anatomical differences, birds only die when hitting a windmill whereas bats can die from barotrauma simply by flying in front of them due to the drastic difference in air pressure. However, I’d still be willing to bet that per unit of energy, fossil fuels probably kill a lot more once you factor in things like habitat loss and climate change.

  10. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “I love solar. But the payback is what, 18 years?”
    Citation needed.
    They used to claim that making solar panels requires more energy than they will generate during their lifetime. That may have been true in 1980’s, but not anymore. Does anybody know the current payback estimate?
    And the environmental costs of fossil fuel burning that solar panels will prevent…

  11. lorn says

    Cats are primarily ambush predators. They wait and pounce. They are quite quick and nimble in a quick burst and their curved claws pull the birds in if they can lay a paw on them.

    Bells don’t work very well. Birds are far more visual than auditory and by the time the ringing alerts them it is too late.

    There have been a few small experiments with bright foam collars, they looked to be about two inches wide, for the cats. These seem to work pretty well. I would have thought the cats wouldn’t tolerate them but, according to one maker, they don’t seem to mind.

    The one reliable method that is proven to work is to keep the cats inside. Lots of up side to that. Cats outside face serious and debilitating diseases, cat fights, raccoons, cars, and coyotes. It’s a jungle out there. Cats are an invasive species that is both vulnerable to the environment and destructive of that environment. Cats can live their entire lives indoors without physical or psychological harm. It is also inside where they fulfill their ultimate benefit to humanity. Inside they can cuddle, comfort, entertain and inspire the humans.

    Kept inside, cats live longer and healthier lives, they cater to human needs more effectively, and they don’t fuck up the ecosystem. It is the right thing to do.

  12. Mano Singham says


    I live in a community where I see a lot of cats wandering around. They seem to be household pets and not feral cats and it seems like the owners allow these cats to be outdoor animals. I am puzzled by this since there are predators around such as raccoons and foxes and coyotes. I have never understood why people would raise their cats to be be outdoor cats since I assume that any cat, if raised from a kitten, can be trained to be an indoor cat and thus safe from harm.

    We do not let Baxter the Wonder Dog be outside even in our enclosed yard on his own for fear that he would be harmed by a fox or coyote.

  13. WhiteHatLurker says

    I am more concerned with the problems that windmills pose to bats. It’s not just a fur versus feather bias, the manner of death is a bit grotesque -- lung rupture -- and the beasts are already contending with fatal fungal infections.

    I still think that wind power can be effective and useful. However, some mitigations could be applied to reduce bat fatalities.

  14. lorn says

    Mano Singham @ 14:
    Adult cats that have spend most of their life outdoors can quickly adapt to life indoors. Litter training and territorial disputes with other residents are probably the biggest problems. It takes a firm hand and consistent loving effort to train an adult animal but it is not difficult. The one issue converting outside to inside cats is that outside cats will seek to dash out any unguarded door. Even after a year of otherwise comfortable life indoors they may still reflexively run.

    Why cat owners insist of keeping cats outdoors is a mystery. I suspect it has to do, as with so many other things, with the mythology associated with cats. About how they need large territories. Or how cats are happier in the wild, free to have ticks and fleas, FIDS, heartworm, to lose an eye in a fight, and get run over. Somehow everyone thinks domestic cats are like lions and in the back of their minds they hear the Born Free theme. None of the mythology holds water.

    My neighborhood has semi-feral cats. All the owner claim to love their cats. They cry and carry on when a cat gets run over or torn to shreds by coyotes. But they never seem to care enough to bring them inside permanently.

    Some owners can’t even manage to get their cats spayed or neutered. When asked they claim they are all fixed. And yet, every single year I’ve lived here. There is another litter, or two of kittens. Clearly immaculate conception. Having witnessed a miracle we should all be debriefed by a priest.

    Cats I understand. They are an invasive species and a subsidized predator. But they are also just animals seeking to stay fed and reproduce. Domestic cats didn’t bring themselves to the continent. Humans are responsible for the pain and suffering of outdoor cats and the pain and suffering of the animals they prey on.

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