I was at a fur protest about a year and a half ago when a passerby engaged us in conversation and stayed the whole time we were protesting. He was interested in one of my fellow protesters, it was clear. He wasn’t vegan, he wasn’t vegetarian, but he asked some interesting and relevant questions. He was willing to follow us to a vegetarian restaurant for a fellow protester’s birthday party, and seemed to enjoy the food. He came back the next week, and more conversations ensued.
In the end, his questions seemed focused on finding ways to avoid facing the ethics of his own consumption, or maybe to find reasons to excuse himself from the issue, and so when he asked me, “what about cell phones? You have a cell phone, so don’t you care about the birds? I refuse to get a cell phone because of the birds.” I thought it was a variation on the many excuses he’d been trying out on us for why he wouldn’t go vegan. I have a cell phone and so he doesn’t need to consider veganim?
You have got to be kidding me.
But he wasn’t. At least, he wasn’t kidding and he wasn’t wrong about cell phones and birds.
The towers are the problem. They are tall structures, they have to be, to provide us signals. And because they are tall structures, they get in the way of birds as they fly. Migratory birds are killed by the towers’ guy wires and by smashing directly into the towers themselves.
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.
Some guidelines were given for tower construction that could help minimize the additional killing that will happen with each new tower.
Another article put most of the blame on the lights on the towers, though it has been known since the 1800’s that tall structures were a danger to birds. According to this article, adverse weather conditions which disrupt visibility make the lights on the towers a big draw, confusing them as well as drawing them in.
Very tall towers with numerous guy wires are especially hard on birds. On a foggy night when celestial clues are obscured, the migrating birds are attracted to and confused by tower lights. They fly around and around towers, striking the towers, their supporting guy wires and other birds, often with fatal results.
These fatalities could be considered takings under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Unfortunately, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that all television stations be digitized by 2003, which could add up to 1,000 new megatowers (towers over 1,000′ in height) to the landscape.
It is the end of 2007 now, and while I don’t have a TV, and am thus mostly oblivious to what is going on around TV, whether it be shows or technology, I believe my parents were quite proud of their HDTV that they got in this past year.
The best site I have found so far for information on all of this is Towerkill, which has collected more information on numbers than anywhere else, as well as information on individual towers. Audubon’s article boiled it down:
To answer such questions, Manville had hoped the government and industry would pony up a pot of money for studies. For example, ornithologist Bill Evans–an independent researcher from Mecklenburg, New York, who has helped publicize the tower-kill issue through a web site, towerkill.com–has proposed a $50,000 study that would equip a TV tower with a variety of lights, then use acoustic-monitoring gear to document how birds react to different colors and flash rates. Other researchers have outlined a multiyear, $15 million to $20 million, national survey to nail down the size of the problem. But research funds remain scarce, in large part because neither the Bush administration nor the fast-moving communications industry consider the studies a priority.There are exceptions: Several tower and utility companies recently offered to fund fieldwork that might shed light on tower kills in the West and the role of lights. And despite the uncertainty, some major U.S. tower builders, including New York-based American Tower, have altered their construction plans to conform to the voluntary guidelines.
One obstacle to more action, however, is that when tower kills are compared with other causes of declining bird populations, they don’t seem like a big deal. For instance, it is estimated that hundreds of millions of birds a year smash into windows and buildings. Pesticides possibly poison an additional 65 million birds, and cats probably claim even more. (Conventional wisdom is that habitat loss is the biggest problem birds face.) Still, such comparisons are beside the point, says Robert Beason, a researcher at the University of Louisiana in Monroe. “Towers may not be causing drastic declines on their own,” he concedes. “But they clearly are a contributing factor and, moreover, one that we can probably do something about.”
What does this mean for us? It means that cell phone towers are a poor excuse for not going vegan, obviously. Cell phone towers are not the biggest danger for birds, not even for songbirds. Can I keep my cell phone? I’m not sure what the answer to that is, it is something I’m thinking about.
I happen to hate TV, have never owned one, so I’m not going to comment on that. It would be too easy for me to tell everyone that they should throw out their TV’s (I do so with less reason than this, after all!), but would that solve the problem? Power lines and landlines aren’t completely without blame either, and I have no control over them or the many tall buildings that exist in our society.
So what can we do? We can eliminate poisons from our environments, and campaign to prevent more from being applied. We can work to get the builders of communication towers to follow the voluntary guidelines for tower construction. We can protect the habitat that has not yet been destroyed, and part of that is campaigning to prevent towers from being placed in ecologically sensitive places.
It seems much of what we already would campaign for is what is needed to address this issue. We simply have to add in awareness for tower construction and help educate people about how to best prevent the deaths of millions of birds every year.