To Drive Eagles Away From Deadly Wind Turbines, Researchers Turn To Sound

Power lines and power-generating windmills rise above the rural landscape on June 13, 2018, near Dwight, Ill. Driven by falling costs, global spending on renewable energy sources like wind and solar is now outpacing investment in electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear power. CREDIT: SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES
File photo. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are exploring how to use different sonic measures to keep large birds away from wind turbines. CREDIT: SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES

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When a wind turbine blade strikes a bird, the bird usually doesn’t survive. Now, researchers are working on new ways to keep birds — particularly eagles – away from wind farms using audio and visual signals.

Two similar projects, funded through the U.S. Department of Energy, are developing systems that could one day be used to help birds avoid wind farms. One of those projects has brought researchers to the Pacific Northwest to work with rehabilitating raptors.

At the University of Minnesota, researcher JoAnn McGee had already been studying acoustic research with exotic animals such as tigers and lions. And so, when a colleague came to her looking to lower bird deaths at wind farms, she thought maybe an acoustic deterrent could be developed.

“What we would hope for is that the birds would listen to the sound source and then would alter their flight patterns if they were heading toward the wind turbines,” McGee said.

A bald eagle shot north of Gaston, Oregon, received treatment at the Audubon Society of Portland before being euthanized.

A bald eagle shot north of Gaston, Oregon, received treatment at the Audubon Society of Portland before being euthanized. Courtesy of Audubon Society of Portland

The idea would be that sensors would detect when birds are flying toward wind facilities. Computer programs would determine what bird was heading near and would play a sound to drive the bird away.

First, she had to figure out what eagles can actually hear. To do that, they studied bald and golden eagle brain activity when researchers played certain sounds. They tested wild and captive birds.

“We were able to assess the frequency range that eagles hear over and what their thresholds are to sound,” McGee said.

The birds responded best to 2-kilohertz sounds, which is within the human speech range. That means sounds would have to be something people can also hear, so they’re trying to make the sounds that could eventually be played near wind turbines simple and not annoying to people.

The researchers analyzed eagle calls to see what the birds would most respond to. They used an eagle vocalization they dubbed “the scream,” a “squeal,” and an eaglet grunt. The team also used sounds of crows mobbing other birds and a variety of complex synthesized tones.

They then placed an eagle in a small room, not large enough for it to fly in. They watched through cameras for the bird to become still. Then they’d randomly play sounds and wait five seconds for the bird to respond.

“The most common response of the eagle was to turn his head toward one speaker or the other,” McGee said. “There were other response, they would sometimes ruffle their feathers or they would look up or down. There was even sometimes a minor startle response, like if you’re not expecting a sound.”

Usually, the birds responded better to the natural sounds. The eagles also didn’t become too used to most of the sounds.

“That gives us a really good starting point toward [creating] a deterrence tool,” McGee said.

With that information, McGee is going to try to create synthetic sounds that better mimic the natural ones.

“We don’t really know what the natural stimuli mean to them, so we don’t want to confuse them [in the wild],” McGee said.

Once they figure out which synthetic sounds work best, they plan to test the eagles during flight. Then, they’ll take the sounds to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s test facility.

“We’re hoping [for more] green energy, but also we want to protect eagles and other birds from the hazards associated with it,” McGee said.

Lynn Tompkins of Blue Mountain Wildlife holds a hawk likely injured by a powerline.

Lynn Tompkins of Blue Mountain Wildlife holds a hawk likely injured by a powerline. CREDIT: COURTNEY FLATT/NWPB

Researchers at Purdue University are working on a similar project, looking at eagles’ behavior in response to audio and visual cues. Jeffery Lucas, who stu