* Cell Phones Kills 40 Million Birds (23/7/02)

Tramès per Klaus Rudolph (Citizens' Initiative Omega)

Jeffrey St. Clair sitka@home.com
Tue, 09 May 2000

May issue, The Gull, the newsletter of the Golden Gate (San Francisco) Chapter of the Audubon Society. MILLIONS OF BIRDS KILLED EVERY YEAR BY TELECOMMUNICATIONS ANTENNAS    by Christopher Beaver, 394 Elizabeth Street, San Francisco CA 94114

e-mail: idgfilms@earthlink.net, tel: 415-824-5822

Each year as the great autumn and spring migrations of more than five billion birds unfolds across the North American continent, more and more of the migrants are being killed in collisions with wireless telecommunication antennas. These include antennas for cellular phones, radio and television. Most of the collisions take place at night as does much of the migration. Birds that generate a great deal of heat in flight, such as ducks and geese, avoid the warm temperatures and direct sunlight of day-time. Smaller birds also seek darkness, but for purposes of stealth, to hide from predators. To navigate, the migrating birds track the stars and gauge the shifting magnetic fields of the earth. The problem, according to Vernon Kleen, an avian ecologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, is that under adverse weather conditions, night-flying birds seem drawn to the antennas' warning lights. The lights are required by the Federal Communications Commission for all antennas over two hundred feet. In the vicinity of airports, towers above 500 feet must carry either red blinking lights or white strobing lights. When birds encounter these lights, they appear to become confused. On radar screens, scientists have observed groups of birds as they circle the antennas in an apparent and often futile attempt to regain their sense of direction. In January of 1998, some 10,000 Lapland Longspurs were killed in a single night as they collided with a 420-foot tower and its guy wires in western Kansas. Many of them were found impaled on stubble left over from the wheat harvest in surrounding fields. The birds appeared to have flown full force into the ground.

In a letter written this past December to William Kennard, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Gerald Winegrad, vice-president of the American Bird Conservancy, estimated that "the annual killing of migratory birds from communication towers may be four million, to an order of magnitude above this." An order of magnitude would mean that the death toll may be as high as forty million birds per year. Surveys of the birds killed are difficult to conduct since the number of affected birds varies widely during the migration while scavengers quickly erase the evidence as they carry away the victims. But according to Jim Cox of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (reported in the Tallahassee Democrat ), the "average" tower may kill as many as 2,500 birds per year. As astonishing as these figures may sound, they have been accepted by the American Ornithologists' Union, the Association of Field Ornithologists, the Cooper Ornithological Society and the Wilson Ornithological Society.

"This is a real problem and we take it very seriously," said Al Manville, a wildlife biologist for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Arlington, Virginia. "Of the 836 bird species entrusted to our care, nearly 200 are already threatened." Due to the "build out" of cellular antennas as competing phone companies struggle to provide blanket coverage, as many as 500,000 new cellular antennas will be constructed over the next decade. A separate technology, digital television, mandated by Congress for full implementation by 2003, will require more than 1,000 "megatowers," each of them at least 1,000 feet high, according to Manville. Despite more than one hundred studies in the scientific literature confirming the impact of antennas on birds, Sheldon Moss, director of government relations at the Personal Communications Industry Association, was quoted in the Morning Star of Wilmington, North Carolina as believing that, "We're in the very early stages, and clearly there needs to be more work done to determine if a problem exists and, if a problem does exist, how severe it is." Several major ornithological organizations disagree.

In 1999, the American Bird Conservancy demanded a full Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed cellular antenna in Pennsylvania and quoted a 1976 study by Canadian wildlife biologist, R.C. Weir that stated: "Nocturnal bird kills are virtually certain wherever an obstacle extends into the air space where birds are flying in migration. The time of year, siting, height, lighting, cross-sectional area [the size] of the obstacles, and weather conditions will determine the magnitude of the kill." Libby Kelley, Executive Director of the Council on Wireless Telecommunications Impacts, points out the difficulties local regulators and citizens face: "According to some interpretations of the 1996 federal Telecommunications Act, which was largely written by industry lobbyists, neither municipalities nor federal agencies are permitted to consider any environmental issues or even human public health impacts when determining where towers can be constructed."

For Al Manville of U.S. Fish and Game, the bottom line may be that industry will have to choose between the "carrot and the stick." The "carrot," in Manville's words: a voluntary partnership among all parties to prevent or limit "tower kills." The stick: criminal prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916 that states that it is illegal to kill a migratory bird "by any means or in any manner," except for "permitted purposes," which includes hunting and the taking of birds for scientific research. To date, the carrot approach appears to have produced some results. A Communication Tower Working Group was formed in 1999 largely at the instigation of Manville and Bill Evans, an ornithologist who in turn had organized an August 1998 symposium at Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology on the issue. With the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as the sponsoring organization, the working group met in November of 1999 as a first step toward establishing research guidelines for future collision studies. Manville, who estimates that such studies would cost about five to eight million dollars and take three to five years to complete, also notes that neither his own agency, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, nor the Federal Communications Commission has the funding or the staff for such an effort. While Manville agrees that further study is necessary to pinpoint the precise factors that account for most tower collisions including the possibility of adverse effects from microwave radiation, he also believes that enough is known to begin taking precautionary steps. Among these would be the gathering of antennas in centralized "co-locations," the removal of obsolete antennas; the distancing of antennas from critical habitat; and a two hundred-foot height limit on new antennas that would free them from Communications Commission guidelines that require antennas over two hundred feet to carry warning lights and be supported by guy wires. Until such measures are introduced, the question is not whether more birds will be killed. The question is whether we are one step closer to achieving the nightmarish world of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring: with the songs and calls of migrating birds silenced by the twittering of cellphones and the din from hundreds of new digital television stations.

Message by Céline Bernadet

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