Lawsuit Seeks to Save Millions of Songbirds From Tower Collisions

WASHINGTON, DC, May 3, 2005 (ENS) - Millions of birds die each year in the United States because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has failed to comply with environmental laws in its licensing of television, radio, cell, and other communications towers, according to a lawsuit filed Monday by two conservation organizations.

The American Bird Conservancy of Washington, DC; and the Forest Conservation Council of Santa Fe, New Mexico, filed suit in federal court against the FCC to activate a formal petition they filed with the agency in August 2002 requesting the agency’s environmental compliance in licensing communication towers, and requiring mitigation techniques to avoid bird deaths.

The current lawsuit, filed on behalf of the groups by the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, requests that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia order the FCC to respond to the petition.

The petition cited violations of federal laws in the deaths of millions of migrating birds at thousands of towers along the Gulf Coast, towers the two groups claim were illegally authorized by the FCC in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

The groups say federal figures show that up to 50 million birds die each year in the United States as a result of lighting on towers that confuses birds during nighttime migration. The birds then crash into the structures, each other, and the ground.

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976 birds killed in a single night at a single Florida TV tower (Photo by Robert Crawford courtesy American Bird Conservancy)
Thousands of birds can die at a single tower in a single night, particularly at times of bad weather or poor visibility during spring and fall migrations, the groups have found.

Still, the FCC has refused to implement the licensing guidelines recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The FWS recommends that towers be kept below 200 feet, where possible, to avoid the necessity of lighting, using only strobe lights where lighting is necessary, and keeping towers unguyed. These measures protect birds while still facilitating communication services and safeguarding air traffic, the groups maintain. The Service recommends co-locating transmitters on existing towers to reduce the number of new towers needed.

The conservation organizations are especially concerned with the impact of communication towers in the Gulf Coast region, a 1,000 mile wide area that runs from Port Isabel, Texas to Tampa Bay, Florida that is a critical stopover region for millions of migratory birds.

Towers in this region are a particular hazard to the birds that arrive each spring, exhausted after their long flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

A study on one Florida television tower alone revealed the deaths of more than 44,000 birds of 186 species.

“The more than 5,200 towers in the Gulf Coast region are avian death traps in a major migratory area. Our repeated efforts to work with the FCC and industry have not produced change, and our law suit is critical to ending the slaughter of millions of birds,” said David Fischer, director of government relations at American Bird Conservancy.

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A communications tower in DeLeon, Texas. (Photo courtesy Vanu, Inc. and Mid-Tex Cellular; National Science Foundation)
"Many of the birds most commonly killed - neotropical migratory songbirds such as warblers, vireos, and thrushes - are already in decline," Fischer said, "and this added mortality to protected species must be addressed.”

“The unregulated jumble of communication towers littering the coastal forests, wetlands, farmlands, and barrier islands of the Gulf Coast region are killing millions of migratory birds each year,” said John Talberth, Forest Conservation Council’s director of conservation.

“Our lawsuit is another step in a broader campaign to reform the haphazard and illegal way the FCC and the communications industry do business, and to bring the public into the decisionmaking process," Talberth said.

In a new study on the numbers and species of birds killed at selected towers, the American Bird Conservancy reports that 230 species of birds were killed at towers, over one quarter of all avian species found in the United States.

Fifty-two of these 230 species are on either the Fish and Wildlife Service's most recent list of Nongame Birds of Management Concern or the Partners in Flight Watch List. This means that 52 species that are in decline and in need of special management attention are killed at towers, including the black rail, Bell's vireo, golden-winged warbler, Swainson's warbler, Henslow's sparrow, Bachman's sparrow, and McCown's longspur.

About 7,000 new towers are currently being built each year, but this rate is expected to increase with developing cellular telephone and digital television networks.

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A Bell's vireo. The species has shown an overall decline of 2.8 per per year from 1966-2001 across its U.S. range - the Midwest, Southwest and Western states. In California, the "Least" Bell's Vireo subspecies is federally endangered. (Photo by Steve Maslowski courtesy USFWS)
Flying will become even more hazardous by 2009, predicted Albert Manville, a far-sighted biologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Migratory Bird Management in Arlington, Virginia. Television stations converting to the digital format in the United States plan to erect more than 1,000 "megatowers," each at least 1,000 feet tall, he said in 1999.

Avian navigation systems might be disrupted by red lights or radio signals that interfere with the birds' ability to monitor Earth's geomagnetic field, according to biologist Robert Beason of the State University of New York at Geneseo. That may explain why birds circle to reestablish their orientation cues and are more likely to collide with towers and guy wires, said Beason.

Birdwatching is America’s fastest-growing hobby and a major economic force in the country, with an estimated 46 million people spending approximately $23 billion on the pastime each year.

Bird collisions with towers, buildings, and other human structures form the theme of this year’s International Migratory Bird Day on May 14, an annual event designed to celebrate the thousand mile journeys that birds undertake each year, and to heighten awareness of hazards that they face.

For a detailed report on tower kills with data on species killed and prevention measures, log on to: www.abcbirds.org/policy/towerkill.htm