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People began documenting bird kills at tall communications towers in North America during the late 1940s - such towers were then being constructed on the continent to broadcast the emerging television medium. Thousands of migrant songbirds killed in a night at a single 1000-foot high television tower was news to ornithologists. Though birdkills at lighthouses had been noted for centuries, it is unlikely that anyone anticipated the staggering number of songbirds that would be killed at tall TV towers that were lighted at night to mark aviation obstructions. Like the lighthouses, on foggy or low cloud ceiling nights, migrating birds appeared to become attracted to the lights of the towers and fly around them for lack of stronger navigational cues. The large mortality at these towers was chiefly attributed to collisions with the many relatively invisible guy wires used to support the towers. Though seen as tragic, these large kills appeared to be relatively rare, and there was not much evidence songbirds were declining - they seemed abundant. Nonetheless, the kills were appalling to bird lovers and tower kill studies began at a number of tall towers across the continent. Most ornithologists and a small portion of the public became aware of the periodic bird kills. In the 1960s and 1970s, the shock over songbird tower kills appears to have begun transformation into mostly an attitude of acceptance, and the notion of salvaging kills for scientific study may have diffused concern over the matter. For whatever reason, a decline in the number of tower kill studies and attention to the issue occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, there are only a few studies on the continent that have been ongoing for more than twenty years, and there are only a handful of studies which have attempted to understand the mechanism of the tower kills.
But this situation was likely to change for two reasons. One, because concurrently during the 1980s and 1990s, the compilations of the first long-term studies on North American bird populations revealed declining populations for many species of migrant songbirds. And two, the 1990s saw the emergence of deregulation in the communications industry along with the beginning of the large buildout of towers for cellular telephone service and digital television. This buildout is expected to continue for many years and will augment the already considerable tower collision hazard for night-migrating songbirds and other migrant birds.
In late 1997 and early 1998, increasing concern for the problem of bird morality at communications towers gelled into a movement aimed at mitigating the problem. A large kill of Lapland Longspurs (a small sparrow-like species) in western Kansas galvanized the effort. By April of 1998, all the major North American ornithological societies had signed a resolution within which contained a request for the US Fish & Wildlife Service to address to avian tower kill problem.
In August 1999 the first national (US) workshop on the issue was held at Cornell University in association with the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists Union. This workshop brought together leading scientists and policy experts, representatives of the broadcast & communications industry, as well as the three US governmental agencies involved in the issue - the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). The meeting initiated the dialog between the various stakeholders and spawned the Communications Tower Working Group (CTWG), which was chaired by Dr. Albert Manville of the FWS. The CTWG formed subcommittees and began having annual meetings aimed at mitigating the avian tower kill problem.
One of the major topics within the CTWG was the reliability of the science that demonstrated which types of tower characteristics were safer for night migrating birds. While much was known, many questions remained and the question turned to how the necessary research was going to be funded. None of the governmental agencies involved had money for such research. The broadcast and communications industry largely denied requests to help fund the research. Nevertheless, some funding arose from incidental sources and some basic research on the avian tower kill problem got underway.
Meanwhile, frustrated after more than four years of CTWG meetings with little progress toward mitigating the problem, the American Bird Conservancy and several other environmental organizations launched a petition against the FCC challenging new tower construction (or alteration) along the Gulf Coast of the US. This region is known for very heavy nocturnal bird migration and therefore is a region where towers are a greater hazard to night-migrating birds.
Coast Petition, along with pressures from environmental
groups and from the FWS likely were factors that led the FCC to open a Notice
of Inquiry into the avian tower kill issue in 2003 [FCC Docket 03-187]. An FCC
Notice of Proposed Rulemaking followed this in 2007. Both these FCC actions solicited
comments from the public and the various organizations involved. Over 2700 comments
have been filed for FCC Docket 03-187 as of early 2008. Included in
the comments were submissions of research reports that had come through the CTWG
All the research to date indicates that eliminating any kind of permanent lighting on communications towers is the simplest and most effective step in greatly reducing avian tower kill, estimated to be in the millions annually in the lower 48 US states. Browsing the maps on Towerkill.com in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean show that modern broadcast and communications development is expanding throughout the Americas, all along the migration routes for our songbirds.
The future of the issue depends somewhat on what response that the FCC puts forth regarding the comments filed for FCC Docket 03-187.