Bird Watcher's General Store

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Bird And Power Lines

Dear Bird Folks,

Today I discovered a dead Blue Jay on my front lawn. The bird was in pretty good shape, except for being dead. As I stood there considering a possible cause of death, I looked up and noticed the power lines running into my house. Do you think that this Blue Jay could have landed on one of the wires and electrocuted itself?

– Diane, Brewster, MA


One minute, Diane,

I’ll get to your question in a minute, but your note reminded me of something I saw earlier today. I drove past a local clam restaurant on my way to work and noticed that they had just installed one of those ridiculous bug zappers near their outdoor eating area. A bug zapper? Are these people the only beings left in the world who haven’t heard that bug zappers do more harm than good? And that zappers actually incinerate thousands of beneficial insects while rarely killing mosquitoes or any other nuisance insect? Some studies indicate they could actually spread diseases. When the bugs hit the zapper they explode, spreading minute insect parts all around the area. Yum! However, I’m not going to name which restaurant installed the lame bug zapper. This restaurant is very popular, with powerful owners. I don’t want to wake up to find the head of a fried clam at the foot of my bed.

I know it seems like I started a bit off topic, Diane, but that little zapper rant actually does have something to do with your question. You mentioned that the Blue Jay you found was in “pretty good shape, except for being dead” (cute line, by the way). Well, I’m no Dr. Quincy, and luckily for me no one has ever mixed me up with Jack Klugman, but I doubt the jay had a problem with your power lines. If it had, the poor bird would have looked like those smoldering bug zapper insects. But you are right to be concerned about power lines. They are a problem.

In many ways birds benefit from power lines. We’ve all seen hawks sitting high on top of utility poles searching for some furry creature to wander out into the open. Ospreys love those big poles to build their nests on. Each fall swallows gather on the power lines by the hundreds before they start their trip south. Both the poles and the wires are important resting locations for many birds, especially in areas where trees are few.

There once was a time when I thought the reason birds didn’t get fried when they sat on the wires was because the wires were encased in insulation, just like the way power cords to our electric appliances are insulated. Well, once again I was wrong. It turns out that only the power lines around homes are insulated, but the big transmission wires aren’t protected by insulation at all. If you touched one, you’d be toast. Am I the only one who didn’t know that? The birds can safely sit on the bare wires because they aren’t grounded. So, if I understand it right, I could jump up, grab a power line and be fine, as long as I didn’t touch the ground, a pole, a tree branch or another wire. However, if I touched anything else I would then complete the circuit and would instantly become the barbecued special of the month.

Small birds, such as swallows and jays, may not have a problem with power lines, but many large birds aren’t as lucky. Cranes, eagles, pelicans and condors top the list of birds that we continue to lose to power lines. When a large bird flies between wires and touches its wing tips to two different wires at the same time, the results are bad. Every year many of our majestic birds are killed when they accidentally complete the circuit, including three California Condors that all fell victim in a single week this past May.

It’s not always the electricity itself that causes problems for birds. Many birds are injured when they simply collide with transmission wires. Snow, rain, fog and darkness all play a role in causing a whole host of birds to collide with the lines. In some critical locations pressure has been put on the power companies to either bury their lines, hang markers on the lines to make them more visible or at least insulate them. In many ways saving the birds is in the companies’ best interest. They may or may not care about the birds, but they do care if their equipment is damaged and service is interrupted. Even power companies don’t like to listen to irate customers who have lost power and are missing the latest showing of American Idol.

Sorry about your jay, Diane, but I doubt your power lines had anything to do with it. Even though the power lines weren’t the villains in this case, they still are a major concern for birds. Unfortunately, electricity is a necessary evil. There isn’t much we could do without it. How else could we get insect parts to explode and fall into our fried clams?