Common yellowthroat at Sourland Mtn, NJ

Energy company sentencing upholds U.S. commitment to protecting birds

CT warbler

Connecticut warblers were among the songbirds killed at AES Laurel Mountain’s wind energy facility in 2011. This photo is from Flickr Creative Commons, user Matt Stratmoen.

Following the deaths of over 400 migratory birds at its wind energy facility, company AES Laurel Mountain, Inc., was recently sentenced to two counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The case demonstrates that protections for migrating birds are just as important now as they were a century ago, when the Migratory Bird Treaty was signed.

This foundational treaty, and the three that followed, formalized the protection of birds that migrate across international borders. In the U.S., our agency leads the effort to work with federal, tribal, state and other partners to conserve, protect and manage bird populations and their habitats. Today, we share treaties with Canada, Mexico, Russia and Japan aimed at the protection of migratory birds.

For hundreds of years, birds were seen as an unlimited resource for the taking. Overhunting, human disturbance and habitat loss hammered the populations of many birds. These pressures led to the extinction of one of the most abundant birds in North America–the passenger pigeon, once estimated at a population of 3-5 billion. The 19th-century fashion trend of using feathers in hats devastated bird populations, causing the annual slaughter of nearly 5 million birds including the piping plover shorebird. At the turn of the century, women came together to boycott this fashion craze, providing the needed spark start the new trend of conservation.

FROM FLICKR: Oregon Inlet, NC. Bird in basic plumage. Very cold day but the shorebirds were finding plenty of food. After failing to find a Purple Sandpiper at the inlet my attention turned towards the other shorebirds none of them as confiding as this bird pulling worms from the ground at a pretty good rate.

Threats to piping plovers have changed over the past 150 years, from hunting for the hat trade in the 19th century to the current high demand for the Atlantic Coast’s limited beach. Photo from Flickr Creative Common user Julio Mulero.

Today, birds in the U.S. continue to face disturbance and habitat loss. New threats have also emerged: powerlines, pesticide and poisoning, communication towers, wind turbines, and oil pits. Our agency works closely with industry and agriculture to minimize and, when possible, avoid effects to migratory birds.

At AES Laurel Mountain’s wind energy facility in Barbour County, West Virginia, the hundreds of birds found dead in October 2011 weren’t victim to the blades of their wind turbines. Rather, improper lighting during dense fog lured migrating blackpoll and Connecticut warblers, common yellowthroats, ovenbirds and other birds to the wind farm. The combination of fog and extensive lighting confuse birds and trap them in the light, leading to deaths by exhaustion or collision with facility structures. Best management practices avoid this by minimizing unnecessary lighting, down shielding lights away from the horizon, and using lights operated by motion sensors.


Common yellowthroat at Sourland Mtn, NJ

Common yellowthroats spend summers in the Northeast. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user Bob Devlin.

As a result of the investigation by our agency, AES Laurel Mountain pled guilty and was sentenced to two counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The sentencing included a total fine of $30,000 and community service where the company agreed to pay $48,300 to the West Virginia Land Trust for conservation of avian species.

While law enforcement is critical to bird conservation, it’s not the only way we can help. Anyone can get involved! Whether you contribute as a partner in a grant project, engage with local organizations through the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds program, or buy a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation (Duck) Stamp – supporting one of the nation’s oldest and most successful conservation programs – YOU have an opportunity to play a crucial role in bird conservation. Learn more about what we do for birds and their conservation and how you can help.

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