Earth Notes - Raptors & Electricity

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Raptors & Electricity

Power lines are quintessential features of the western landscape. Out on the open range a row of power poles and wires stretching into the distance forms a predictable geometry that's almost comforting.

But for predatory birds those poles can become a fatal attraction. Particularly in open areas, where natural perches are few, they offer large birds of prey like hawks, eagles, and owls a place to rest and a convenient vantage point for spotting prey. Sometimes hawks even build their nests there. Power poles have aided raptor populations by opening up previously unusable habitats but at a terrible cost.

At the heart of the problem is size: a raptor's wingspan is often large enough that it can accidentally touch two live wires when it spreads its wings. That results in electrocution.

It's hard to get precise numbers, but biologists have learned that electrocution does kill a lot of raptors. Nearly half of the nesting hawks being monitored in southern Arizona in one 2003 study were killed by power lines.

If you find a dead bird under a power pole, it's a good idea to contact the Game and Fish Department or electric utility. That's because some power companies have been replacing dangerous old power poles with new designs that either separate or insulate wires in ways that save birds' lives.

These updated power poles have odd configurations of wires or strange-looking crossarms. Their presence in the western landscape means some raptors have finally found a safe place to call home.

-David Lukas