Towering Troubles
Bird Collisions With Communications Towers


Did you know our TV and cell phone habits are contributing to the deaths of millions of migratory birds a year? The birds collide with the communications towers transmitting our cell phone and TV airwaves and with the cables that anchor the towers. Those towers become sky-high death traps for birds, who then drop in grass, streets, parks, and fields, and on rooftops. Using numbers from several long-term studies, conservation groups and government biologists estimate that communications towers kill from 4 to 50 million birds a year. They endanger or threaten at least 50 species.

More Towers Coming
The number of communications towers in the United States is unknown. It was estimated at 100,000 in 2002. The only registered towers are those 200 feet or taller; these are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to have safety lighting. Thousands of shorter towers, controlled only by local zoning, have popped up with the boom of cell phones and pagers. Thousands more towers of all sizes are being built each year--a result of more cellular telephone service and digital television networks.

The construction of new towers is deadly news for migratory birds. The tower-bird collisions occur (1) during spring and fall migrations, and (2) at night, when songbirds travel to avoid the heat and daytime predators. For birds, such as whooping cranes, that fly during the day but cannot see the power lines, the towers and lines are the Number One migration danger.

Working on Solutions
Many of these nighttime travelers can cross oceans and navigate mountain ranges. What makes them crash into the blinking, lighted towers? Scientists aren't certain. The worst kills happen when a flock, which might number half a million, flaps toward a lighted tower. Something about the lights attracts the birds. Red beacons seem to draw birds more than other lights do, although studies suggest that red wavelengths may disrupt the birds' ability to navigate using the stars or the earth's magnetic fields. The weather may play a role, since large kills almost always occur on cloudy or foggy nights. Fog, mist, or storms increase the odds of trouble. Unlike larger birds, which can climb above the clouds, smaller migrants sometimes try swooping underneath, right into the path of towers.

The big question is, What can be done to keep birds away from the sky-high death traps? A committee was formed to research tower kills. The Communication Tower Working Group is made of about 50 federal officials, conservationists, researchers and people from private businesses. But research takes money, and funds are short. The fast-moving communications industry and some government leaders don't see the studies as top priority because more birds are killed by roaming cats, speeding cars, pesticides and tall, shiny office buildings than by tower kills. Most people feel that habitat loss everywhere is the biggest threat to birds. Still, tower kills are a big contributor to bird deaths, and a cause we can do something about. Friends of the Earth and the Forest Conservation Council are two environmental groups that say the Federal Communicatons Commisision (FCC), which regulates tower construction, should be the lead voice. Should tower-building be stopped until a full study is done to show how the towers affect bird populations? That's one idea.

To help cut down the kills, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has created some guidelines for the tower industry. Following the guidelines will save birds but mean higher costs for an industry that is racing to expand. There are many groups with interests at stake, and there are no easy solutions.

What YOU Can Do

  1. Investigate and speak out. If towers are proposed for your community, make your voice heard. Ask the people in charge of the towers if they are voluntarily following the guidelines for bird-friendly tower construction.
  2. Learn more and pass the word. See these resources, and look for more:
  • "Faulty Towers," by David Malakoff. Audubon Magazine, September-October 2001, pp. 78-83.
  • TowerKill.Com. On this Web site, you'll see a map with dots showing the height and placement of towers in your state. This site also has links to articles and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's guidelines.

Try This! Activities and Discussion Questions
  • Paraphrase and discuss the 12 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Guidelines for bird-friendly tower construction. Print a copy of the this page and make an overhead transparency or pass out copies to small groups. Ask, Do the guidelines seem fair and effective? What questions do you have? How might we find answers?
  • Build scale models or draw illustrations of bird-friendly towers. Display them in your community along with posters to educate the public about this threat to our already decreasing populations of migratory birds.
  • Journal or discuss this question: Why should we care if birds die at TV towers? Share your reasoning. (Did you remember that wild birds are important in ecosystems as plant pollinators, insect eaters, and seed spreaders? Did you think about the beauty added to our lives by bird songs, antics, and colors?)

National Science Education Standards
  • Changes in environments can be natural or influenced by humans. Some changes are good, some are bad, and some are neither.