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Hot Spot: Despite advances in safety, power lines remain a threat to raptors 

A spot on a power line might not be the best place for a bird to take a break what with the high possibilities of electrocution.

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Birds have no inkling as to the hazards of getting too close to high-powered electricity. As a result, if a bird touches two or more wires, the meeting is fatal. Electricity in wires is similar to controlled lightning; the current is always searching for a way back to the earth. A bird standing in that path is a conductor and will be fried. Period—exclamation point!

When wires were first attached to poles to carry electrical energy to far-flung places, not many people gave much thought to what happened to raptors when the wires crossed. Blam! Curtains for said bird. It wasn't until it began to cost money to put those circuits back together that power companies began to do something about transmission wires that killed birds.

Bonneville Power Administration, back in the ‘60s, found it was extremely costly to repair electrical circuits and hardware blown apart by eagles and other raptors. Morely Nelson, a falconer living in Idaho, was of great help in designing hardware that protected both raptors and power equipment. He went even further and suggested that BPA place fiberglass nesting platforms atop the towers carrying power across the Great Sandy Desert of Oregon to California.

As agriculture moved out into more isolated places in the West, especially hay farms, electricity traveled with them providing power to run irrigation pumps. Hay farming attracts pocket gophers, mice, voles, ground squirrels and black-tailed jackrabbits. All of the above are food for raptors—from very large female eagles to soaring hawks, to owls. The power lines make a tempting perch for predators.

You can imagine the consequences of all that activity: the nighttime air is shattered with the electrocution of owls—from great horned to their smaller cousins, including barn owls. During the day an eagle may swoop up to a cross-arm to eat a jackrabbit. Quite often its wings reach from one wire to another; if they are wet—blam!—from 14,400 to 25,000 volts of electricity goes blasting through its body, and the burned carcass crashes back to earth.

A great horned or barn owl will snatch a pocket gopher out of its hole and head for the nice, flat perch of a transformer and Blam! I was introduced to this tragedy by a landowner who had a power line on his private wildlife easement. A great horned owl flew up to a fuse-link to eat a gray squirrel and was electrocuted. When the lineman pried it off with his insulated pole, the owl fell to the earth still holding the squirrel in its talons.

It wasn't long before federal and state wildlife agencies began to notice the death of raptors from electrocution. Power companies and biologists both had a stake in a solution. This became especially urgent when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the bald eagle on the Endangered Species Act list and law enforcement began to push the Federal Migratory Bird Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Within a very short time fines were issued to power companies that didn't demonstrate effective tools and efforts to make power poles, lines, transformers and other equipment safe. Despite advances in avian safety, the problem of raptor electrocution persists. This statement from the Fish and Wildlife Service reminds us how serious this problem is today:

"Millions of birds, including Bald and Golden Eagles, owls, and hawks are thought to die each year as a result of power line interactions. Some birds die as a result of direct collisions with the lines, particularly in poor weather, while the large wingspan of other birds can bridge the gap between two lines or a line and a pole, resulting in deadly electrocutions. The recent increase in wind farm construction is leading to a new network of high transmission lines, some of which are being routed through key bird habitat and migration corridors. Potential threats to the endangered Whooping Crane are of particular growing concern."

Central Electric Cooperative, the company that supplies most of the electrical energy to the Sisters area, is working diligently to prevent raptor-killing by electricity. According to Jeff Beaman, CEC’s member services director, the company has several ways of reducing bird electrocutions:

• The “nesting platform,” is a horizontal surface or box that’s erected atop the pole so the nest is above the electrical equipment or placed on a dummy pole near an active nesting site. There are several hay farmers in Central Oregon who use the nesting boxes as a form of rodent removal. In most cases, CEC installs them at no cost.

• PVC triangles. This triangular anti-nesting device makes a spot on a cross arm unusable for a bird looking to perch.

• Pole extender perches keep birds out of harms way.

• Insulated conductor jumpers. These sections of electrical cable use a plastic insulated covering. If touched by a bird, the animal will feel a tingle and be motivated to move away. Midstate Electric Coop in La Pine uses similar equipment and methods to meet the same ends.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has produced a 30-minute video entitled ‘Raptors at Risk,’ explaining the electrocution problem and federal laws that protect birds while providing practical information on retrofitting existing power lines and installing new equipment to prevent bird deaths.

Please report finding any dead bird to the local office by calling 541-383-7146.

F or additional information on bird fatalities, go to the American Bird Conservancy website:


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