WSB: California bird electrocution hot spot causes fires

Electrocuted raptors aren’t exactly going out with a blaze of glory—but they’re certainly causing blazes in some parts of central California.

New research has linked bird electrocution on power lines to wildfires around the U.S. This information may be helpful in mitigating the dangerous fires.

Power lines cause problems for birds around the world. Raptors often perch—and sometimes even nest—on electric poles. But this can cause big problems for birds of prey. In Mongolia, research has shown electrocution may be causing saker falcon (Falco cherrug) population decline. There, as in the U.S., the problem primarily affects larger birds like raptors, since they are big enough to touch two wires at the same time, or to bridge the gap between an electric pole and the crossline.

“When a bird is electrocuted, the water in their cells vaporizes instantly. The bird can combust and fall to the ground,” said Taylor Barnes, a biologist and GIS specialist at EDM International, a private electric engineering consulting company. “It’s not a great way to go if you’re a bird.”

Small songbirds, on the other hand, can safely sit on a single power line without any issues.

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) electrocuted on a partially retrofitted power pole in northern Colorado. Covers placed on this pole to prevent avian contact with energized wires degraded over time.
Credit: James F. Dwyer, Certified Wildlife Biologist®, EDM International, Inc.

In a study published recently in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, Barnes and his co-authors set up Google Alert notifications for news stories occurring from 2014 to 2018 in the lower 48 states including words like fire, hawks and electrocution. They separated the legitimate cases of fires caused by electrocuted birds from other news about rock bands or Pontiac Firebird cars.

The team found 44 cases of wildfires started by electrocuted birds. When they analyzed these cases, they found one major hot spot for electrocuted bird fires—an area sometimes known as the Mediterranean California. This area covers a large portion of the state where the climate is characterized by cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers. These conditions lead to a buildup of vegetation that dries out and dies during the summer—a perfect situation for wildfires in general, with or without electrocuted birds.

A golden eagle perches on a power pole retrofitted with a cover on the center wire to prevent the bird from connecting two wires, which can cause an electrical fire.
Credit: James F. Dwyer, Certified Wildlife Biologist®, EDM International, Inc.

Twelve of the cases the researchers tracked down—about 27% of the total—occurred in this region, despite the area only accounting for about 2% of the total land of the lower 48 states.

Barnes said that fires in these areas could be reduced if utility companies retrofitted their power lines and poles so that they were less dangerous for raptors in this part of California. That would involve covering parts of the wires on the poles so that large birds can’t make the connection while perching, among other measures.

Some birds even nest on electric poles.
Credit: Credit: James F. Dwyer, Certified Wildlife Biologist®, EDM International, Inc.

While this may burden utility companies, Barnes said that retrofitting far outweighs the potential cost of lawsuits due to property loss or injuries caused by fires. In one case the researchers found in Chile, someone even died from one of these fires caused by birds getting electrocuted.

The power companies also face potential legal problems from litigation due to the unpermitted take of protected species like bald (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) or golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos).

With the proper mitigation, the phoenix that rises from the ashes of electrocuted raptors could be a safer California for birds and humans.

This article features research that was published in a TWS peer-reviewed journal. Individual online access to all TWS journal articles is a benefit of membership. Join TWS now to read the latest in wildlife research.

Header Image: Their large size makes raptors particularly susceptible to electrocution.
Credit: James F. Dwyer, Certified Wildlife Biologist®, EDM International, Inc.