Crash Course

Cell phone towers and migratory birds dont mix. The FCC wonders what to do about it. By Jef Taylor

The number of cell phone towers in the United States is on the rise, and with every one built, our coverage and reception improves. But for migratory birds, these structures are anything but convenient—each year, millions of birds are killed in collisions with towers.

Most people would like better cell phone coverage, but at what cost? Would the death of millions of migratory birds every year be acceptable? What about the loss of an entire bird species? These are the questions that have arisen since the FCC recently asked for public comments on possible regulations on cell phone tower construction.

Critics of construction regulations point out that bird collisions with man-made objects is not a new problem, and that cell phone towers present a tiny fraction of the danger.

According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), a wireless communications trade group, only five million birds are killed in collisions with cell phone towers per year, as compared with a minimum of 97 million killed by flying into windows, or 174 million killed by flying into power lines.   

But some scientists and conservationists refute the claims of the wireless industry, saying that not only has bird mortality has been underestimated, but that towers have a disproportionate effect on species already at risk. In a recent paper based on data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and several other conservation organizations estimated that between four and 40 million birds die from crashes into cell towers each year.

The ABC paper says that manmade hazards do not affect all bird species equally. In the case of cell phone towers, it says, birds that migrate at night run the greatest risk of collision, since these species often do not see towers or become confused by lights on the towers.

These "neotropical migrants" (birds that migrate from North America to Central and South America, traveling mainly at night) include the endangered Kirtland's warbler, and many species thought to be in decline. The ABC points out that the National Environmental Policy Act “requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the issue of bird collisions with communications towers an important one, and in 2000 the agency produced a list of voluntary guidelines for industries constructing such towers. The guidelines included a recommendation to keep towers under 200 feet, in large part because towers of that height or taller are required to have FAA lights, and studies have shown that lighted towers cause more bird collisions.

When asked about the mortality of birds due to window collisions as compared to those of towers, Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Albert Manville said that it was like comparing “apples to kumquats.” He said that the exponential growth of communications towers in the coming years could pose a serious threat to endangered bird species, and that the industry figures were “a smokescreen, frankly.”

The FCC will accept comments on the issue until January 22, 2007. The agency has not said how long it will consider public comments before deciding whether or not to propose regulations.

"I would take the ABC report's numbers over those of a trade organization any day,” said Manville. “But what is really needed is sound science."

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great article. had never thought about the impact my great cell-coverage was having on animals and the environment.

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