Six birds found dead recently in Southern California's Tehachapi Mountains were majestic golden eagles. But some bird watchers say that in an area where wind turbines slice the air they were sitting ducks.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating to determine what killed the big raptors. But the likely cause of death is no mystery to wildlife biologists, who say they were probably clipped by the blades of some of the 80 wind turbines at the 3-year-old Pine Tree Wind Farm Project, operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
As the Obama administration pushes to develop enough wind power to provide 20 percent of America's energy by 2030, bird advocates worry that the grim discovery of the eagles this month will be a far more common occurrence.
Windmills kill nearly half a million birds a year, according to a Fish and Wildlife estimate. The American Bird Conservancy projected that the number could more than double in 20 years if the administration realizes its goal for wind power.
The American Wind Energy Association, which represents the industry, disputes the conservancy's projection, and also the current Fish and Wildlife count, saying the current bird kill is about 150,000 a year.
Over nearly 30 years, none of the nation's 500 wind farms, where 35,000 wind turbines operate mostly on private land, have been prosecuted for killing birds, although long-standing laws protect eagles and a host of migrating birds.
If the investigation by the Fish and Wildlife law enforcement division results in a prosecution at Pine Tree, it will be a first. The conservancy wants stronger regulations and penalties for the industry. The government has so far responded only with voluntary guidelines.
But federal officials, other wildlife groups and a wind-farm industry representative said the conservancy's views are extreme. Wind farms currently kill far fewer birds than the estimated 100 million that fly into glass buildings, or up to 500 million killed yearly by cats. Power lines kill an estimated 10 million, and nearly 11 million are hit by automobiles, according to studies.