California Energy Commission enlists UC Santa Cruz research group in effort to prevent bird deaths caused by power lines

The California Energy Commission has awarded a $1 million grant to the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group (SCPBRG) to help solve the problem of bird deaths caused by power lines and other structures used for electricity transmission. Thousands of hawks, eagles, owls, and other birds die each year from electrocution and collisions with power lines and other electric utility structures.

"It probably doesn't have significant effects on the population of any particular species, but power lines do kill a lot of individual birds, and those birds are all protected under state and federal laws," said Brian Walton, coordinator of the SCPBRG, based at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Electrocution is the main cause of bird deaths related to power transmission structures. Large raptors, such as eagles and hawks, like to perch and sometimes even nest on top of power poles. Electrocutions happen when a bird's wings or other appendages complete a circuit by bridging the gap between two live wires, or a live wire and a grounded wire, or other parts such as transformers and grounded metal crossarms.

"Typically, the bird opens its wings and the wingtips span from one wire to another and complete the circuit. So it's the larger birds that get electrocuted, not only raptors but sometimes herons and other species," Walton said.

In addition to killing birds, electrocutions sometimes start wildfires (when birds catch fire and fall to the ground) and can cause serious power outages. Various methods have been used to reduce the likelihood of electrocutions and collisions, but more work is needed to evaluate their effectiveness, develop improved designs, and find cost-effective ways to implement them, Walton said. Retrofitting all existing power lines would be far too expensive, according to the utility companies, so tools are needed to identify where problems are most likely to occur.

The issue has become more pressing for utility companies in recent years as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has adopted a tougher stance toward the industry over the deaths of protected birds. After years of looking the other way, the agency is now threatening to prosecute and fine companies for the deaths of birds protected under the Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Endangered Species Act. In 1999, a Colorado utility cooperative became the first power company to be prosecuted in federal court for bird electrocutions; the company was fined and forced to retrofit its wiring.

In California, the state Energy Commission has taken the lead in addressing the problem.

"The commission wants to develop effective solutions, and UC Santa Cruz will coordinate that effort for us," said Energy Commissioner Robert Laurie. "This is a worldwide problem; together we are trying to devise solutions that can be used everywhere."

Under the new grant, the SCPBRG will implement a program for the commission to find effective ways of reducing bird deaths caused by electrocutions and collisions with power structures. The program will include research and development activities in four main areas:

  • Risk Assessment Research to develop ways to identify transmission structures that pose a high risk of electrocutions and collisions, and to determine the extent of the problem in California.
  • Risk Reduction Research to develop and implement guidelines, tools, and procedures to reduce the extent of bird mortality caused by transmission systems.
  • Compliance Monitoring to develop and implement procedures, guidelines, and standards for evaluating the effectiveness of mitigation efforts.
  • Technology Transfer to share information about bird-friendly practices with agencies, researchers, and industry.

Some of the work will be done by SCPBRG researchers, but much of it will probably be subcontracted to other groups, Walton said.

The SCPBRG was established in 1975 to restore the endangered peregrine falcon population in California. The group now applies its expertise to a wide range of bird species and is working toward creative solutions for a variety of wildlife management challenges in the western United States. Additional information about the SCPBRG is available on the web at


Editor's note: Reporters may contact Walton at (831) 459-2466 or For the California Energy Commission, contact Rob Schlichting at (916) 654-4989 or

Images can be downloaded from the web at