Breeding Bird Distribution Affected by Wind Turbines in the Dakotas

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New wind energy facilities placed in prime wildlife habitat in North and South Dakota can influence the distribution of several species of grassland birds for years after construction, including species whose populations are in serious decline.

New wind energy facilities placed in prime wildlife habitat in North and South Dakota can influence the distribution of several species of grassland birds for years after construction, including species whose populations are in serious decline.

According to a U.S. Geological Survey report recently published in the journal Conservation Biology, seven of nine bird species studied from 2003-2012, including the significantly declining grasshopper sparrow and bobolink, were displaced from suitable breeding habitat in native mixed-grass prairies after wind turbine construction. Displacement typically started one year after construction and persisted for at least two to five years.

One species, the killdeer, was temporarily attracted to the new wind facilities, likely because it prefers the gravel of turbine pads and roads for nesting. Neither displacement nor attraction was detected for one species, the vesper sparrow.

“Understanding how wind turbines affect breeding birds can help wind developers and land managers site turbines in areas with minimal impact to birds, while striving to meet energy demands, reduce carbon emissions and provide energy security,” said Jill Shaffer, a USGS scientist and lead author of the study.

The scientists collected data from three wind facilities in grasslands of Highmore, South Dakota, and Forbes and Oliver County, North Dakota. They monitored changes in density of breeding bird pairs overall and in relation to distance from wind turbines.

Two of the bird species exhibited displacement the year after construction, which persisted for at least two to five years:

  • The western meadowlark, which moved 300 to 1000 meters (m) from turbines, or more than 984 to 3280 feet (ft) and
  • the upland sandpiper (100 m, about 328 ft).

Species that exhibited displacement from two to five years post-construction were:

  • The bobolink (300 to 1000 m),
  • grasshopper sparrow (300 m),
  • clay-colored sparrow (200 m or 656 ft),
  • chestnut-collared longspur (300 m) and
  • savannah sparrow (300 m).

“The Great Plains supports some of the last remaining native temperate grasslands in North America,” Shaffer said. “Proper management of these valuable wildlife habitats can help maintain overall ecosystem health for the benefit of animals and people.”

The USGS and NextEra Energy provided research funding. For more information about wildlife habitat research in the Great Plains, please visit the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center website.