Vulnerable Grassland Birds Abandon Mating Sites Near Wind Turbines

(The Condor: Ornithological Applications, May 6, 2015)—Shifting to renewable energy sources has been widely touted as one of the best ways to fight climate change, but even renewable energy can have a downside, as in the case of wind turbines’ effects on bird populations. In a new paper in The Condor: Ornithological Applications, a group of researchers demonstrate the impact that one wind energy development in Kansas has had on Greater Prairie-Chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) breeding in the area. Virginia Winder of Benedictine College, Andrew Gregory of Bowling Green State University, Lance McNew of Montana State University, and Brett Sandercock of Kansas State University monitored prairie-chicken leks, or mating sites, before and after turbine construction and found that leks within eight kilometers of turbines were more likely to be abandoned.

Leks are sites at which male prairie-chickens gather each spring to perform mating displays and attract females. The researchers visited 23 leks during the five-year study to observe how many male birds were present and to record the body mass of trapped males. After wind turbine construction, they found an increased rate of lek abandonment at sites within eight kilometers of the turbines as well as a slight decrease in male body mass. Lek abandonment was also more likely at sites where there were seven or fewer males and at sites located in agricultural fields instead of natural grasslands.

This paper is the latest in a series of studies on the effects of wind energy development on prairie-chickens. “To me, what is most interesting about our results is that we are now able to start putting different pieces of our larger project together to better understand the response of Greater Prairie-Chickens to wind energy development at our field site,” says study co-author Virginia Winder. “We have found that both male and female prairie-chickens have negative behavioral responses to wind energy development. The data we collected to monitor this response have also allowed us new insights into the ecology of this species. For example, lek persistence at our study site depended not only on distance to turbine, but also male numbers and habitat.”

The findings of this study reinforce the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommendation that no new wind energy development should be done within an eight-kilometer buffer around active lek sites. “It is critical to have rigorous evaluations of direct and indirect effects of wind energy facilities on species such as prairie-chickens,” according to grassland wildlife management expert Larkin Powell, who was not involved with the research. “The potential for trade-offs between renewable energy and wildlife populations on the landscape is one of the key questions of our day.”

A male Greater Prairie-Chicken. Photo credit: M. Herse

A male Greater Prairie-Chicken. Photo credit: M. Herse

Responses of male Greater Prairie-Chickens to wind energy development is available at http://www.aoucospubs.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-14-98.1. Contact: Brett Sandercock, bsanderc@ksu.edu.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. The journal began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society.

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