Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

Cell phones and birds

bird in tree

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,–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.

power lines


9 responses to “Cell phones and birds

  1. rich October 17, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    My own personal Debipedia. We talk about birds and cell phone towers and I get more information than I could find in a night.
    Not the same thing but a few years back NYC started a campaign to dim the lights on buildings at night to help the migratory birds. It seems that the lights, especially the ones above the 40th floor really confuse the birds.
    Thanks for this really informative post.

  2. Deb October 17, 2007 at 9:10 pm

    That is the same thing though! The issue with lights and tall buildings was talked about in some of the articles, along with heights above 200 ft., I think it was, being especially dangerous for the migratory birds, so it is all part of the whole. That’s cool that NYC was doing what it could to lessen the impact of those tall buildings.

    Debipedia. I’ve been called many things, but not that! 😀

  3. leindiemeister October 17, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    You’re always so well-informed, which leads you to be informative, and I appreciate that. This post makes me yearn for the days three months ago when I did not have a cell phone. I never would have considered that those towers could relate to the well-being of animals, save for the destruction of the environment, and that they are ugly. But now it seems common sense. I mean, everything we DO or CREATE relates to that. It has to, because we share the planet. I need to think about the birds again. I feel that I often neglect thinking about the ones who are not imprisoned by factories. “Free” animals aren’t really all that free, are they? They still need protection from us, and they’re still forced to work around or within the confines we’ve set up by developing the world for our benefit.

    Also, I commend (I thiiink that’s the right word) you for not having a television. I guess it discourages you from wasting your time on trivial things and instead encourages you to reach out and learn about what matters. That’s a good lifestyle, maybe something to try out. Take in what’s good for you and for everyone else.

  4. Becci October 18, 2007 at 1:57 am

    DAMN. I just got a cell phone a few months ago. Now I’m upset. Thanks for this very informative post, though.

  5. Deb October 18, 2007 at 6:14 am

    Indie, I wouldn’t have known either if someone hadn’t mentioned it to me. And even then, I didn’t really understand the extent of the problem or exactly what caused it until I did the research last night. The nice thing about the ‘net and blogging is that we don’t all have to do the research!

    But no, “free” animals aren’t free – they’re constantly being sacrificed to the whims and convenience of humans, whether through habitat destruction or directly through poisons. We do share the planet, though most humans strongly believe that human wants and desires take priority over the lives of everyone else (and often over the lives of other humans as well). It is always good to remember that they’re impacted by everything we do. It is overwhelming at times too, because we can’t get rid of the tall buildings, and as much as I’d love it, I don’t see the entire world ditching their TVs and cell phones so we can pull down the communication towers.

    I have a cell phone, and even though I don’t use it very much, I have a hard time thinking about giving it up. It is a relativly small percentage of the overall birds killed that are killed by the cell towers. More are killed by poison, tall buildings, cats, and habitat destruction, and that’s more killed by each thing I just listed, not a combined total. Is that enough of a justification to keep my cell phone while I campaign the tower builders to build friendlier towers? I don’t know, honestly. I’m struggling with that one. Oh, and windmills have the same (or a similar) danger, so even when we’re trying to do something good (or at least better) it can easily have negative consequences.

    I have many issues with TV, and it being a waste of time is just one of them. As far as not wasting my time on trivial things, though, the best I can say is that while I do still waste my time on trivial things, they’re less passively wasted than if I was just sitting watching TV! I know also that there are a lot of documentaries on TV and it can be a learning opportunity, BUT…nah, I’ll never say anything other than “NO MORE TV!” I really hate TV! 😀

    Becci, I feel your pain! I was really upset when I found out (though as Indie said, it does make sense if I’d stopped to think about it before), and I feel a bit stuck, as my cell phone is the only phone I have. That can be changed, but I’d definitely feel at a loss at times without a cell phone. How often do we see pay phones anymore? Even ignoring the convenience factor and my addiction to text messaging, I’m not sure how practical it would be.

    But because I am addicted to text messaging, that’s not my final word, because I’m not sure whether or not I’m just making excuses.

  6. Ron October 18, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    Deb and Becci,

    Keep your cell phones. However, we all need to ensure that cell companies are following the guidelines set by ethical, competent ornithologists. Cell phones are essential in today’s world and there are ways to mitigate avian mortalities; however, that may require higher rates from customers, which we must accept.

    rich, I agree. Deb is very informed and she is an excellent writer.

  7. Deb October 18, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    Ron, thanks! And thanks for your input on cell phones. Are the guidelines I found and linked in the post the best ones, or are there better ones out there? I didn’t really have any way to evaluate them, and didn’t see anything online that talked much about how effective they were.

  8. Ron October 19, 2007 at 12:24 pm


    Most guidelines sanctioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are reliable, especially if they were derived through professional peer review. Without peer review of subjects that have far-reaching consequences, the risk of injecting personal biases is substantial. I have had personal experience with professional biologists who exaggerated data and/or extrapolated data far beyond acceptable inferential limits to support an unverifiable claim because their biases got in the way of sound science.

    Your links that reference the USFWS appear acceptable. However, if you were to oppose cell phone tower construction, you must get the original data source to cite as evidence to lend credence to your position.

  9. Deb October 20, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    Ron, that’s good to know. I think I did stumble across the actual USFWS guidelines at one point as I researched, and they were mostly the same as the guidelines I linked in, though there might be extra points on the one I left linked. But it is a good reminder that when approaching the companies, the “official” guidelines are the ones we should reference.

    I wasn’t sure from your first comment if the USFWS guidelines were the ones you were talking about, which really highlights my cynicism, I guess!

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