04 February 2009

Birds Struck Dead by Overhead Wires in the 1860-70s and Beyond

The American woodcock is a signature species to denote the historic origin of birds striking wires, and getting killed by the collision. Scattered reports occurred in the mid-1860s, and a document published by the U.S. government conveys some of the original details.

"Many are the specimens I have seen which were killed by flying against the telegraph wire; but this is not so surprising, as the wire is not easily distinguished at any distance," wrote Dr. E.G. Elliott, of New York, in a section on the game birds of the United States, in a report from the Commissioner of Agriculture in 1864.

Various accoutrements of civilization spreading across the west wrought further changes, some which were revealed as being a sudden detriment to the lively existence of wild birds of the plains. Notably, communication was of utmost importance so telegraph wires were strung about in many places to facilitate spreading details of messages for railroads, and the burgeoning news of those days.

Some of the first documented causes of deaths due to birds striking "invisible" wires were on the western grasslands with vast cerulean skies which had never before been diminished by obstructions for communication and for-profit business.

The changes were readily documented.

One of the first notations of wire strikes was by Joel A. Allen during an ornithological reconnaissance of the west. The journey - for the Museum of Comparative Zoology - started at Fort Leavenworth on the west side of the unhindered Missouri River, then continued westward through Kansas and beyond to Utah. During December 25, 1871 to January 12, 1872 while in the northwestern Kansas region - westward from Park's Fort Station, on the Kansas Pacific Railway, to Grinnell, and from the Smoky River on the south to the head-waters of the Solomon River on the north - there were brief comments relating how the telegraph wires harmed prairie larks.

The account for Eremophila alpestris - Horned Lark - said they were "abundant everywhere, but especially numerous along the railroad and near the settlements."

An important aspect of the exploration was collecting study skins, and this task was obviously made easier by the wires along the railroad: "A number were also obtained that had maimed themselves by flying against the telegraph-wires at Coyote Station."

Brief years later, Elliott Coues wrote in-depth about "the destruction of birds by telegraph wires" after observations while traveling on horseback from Denver, Colorado, to Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1876.

His article in the American Naturalist started with: "Few persons, probably, even among ornithologists, realize what an enormous number of birds are killed by flying against these wires, which now form a murderous net-work over the greater part of the country. Until recently, I had myself no adequate idea of the destruction that is so quietly, insidiously, and uninterruptedly accomplished."

Prominent birds along the ride were Horned Larks and McCown's Longspurs.

The observant Dr. Coues - a preeminent ornithologist - wrote in further detail about the carcasses seen:

"Becoming interested in the matter, I began to count, and desisted only after actually counting a hundred in the course of one hour's leisurely riding - representing perhaps a distance of three miles. Nor was it long before I saw birds strike the wire, and fall stunned to the ground; three such cases were witnessed during the hour. One bird had its wing broken; another was picked up dying in convulsions from the force of the blow. The eyeballs of several dead ones I examined were started from their sockets, and the feathers of the forehead were torn off, indicating a violent blow upon the head; but in most cases there was left no outward mark of the fatal internal injury. Along some particular stretches of wire where, for whatever reason, birds had congregated, the dead ones averaged at least one to every interval between the poles; sometimes two or three lay together, showing where a flock had passed by, and had been decimated."

Most of the fatalities were larks, and about a dozen buntings. Other species "destroyed" by the telegraph wires were the Western Meadowlark and a Green-winged Teal.

Coues' summary: "Since we cannot conveniently abolish the telegraph, we must be content with fewer birds. The only moral I can discern is that larks must not fly against telegraph wires."

When contributor Dom Pedro (a pseudonym for Theo. R. Quay) of Pottsville, Pa., went angling on the Schuykill county waters, the small party noted that "game of every kind is very abundant," and held great promise for sportsmen in the pending fall and winter sporting season.

His article written on July 30, 1877, and issued in Forest and Stream, had this particular paragraph about the myriad of birds being killed by telegraph wires:

"Notwithstanding the frequent changes hurled at the illegitimate action of the destroyer of game birds by means of trapping, snaring, etc., and those disregarding the season for propagation, yet we feel there is pardon for him when we seriously contemplate the many hundred thousand birds killed annually by flying against the telegraph wires, which form a murderous network over the greater part of the country. In support of this assertion it is only necessary to give some facts observed during the few days of our rusticating, the most note-worthy of which was the finding of nearly one hundred dead birds in close proximity to the telegraph wire in a distance of four miles. Several of the birds we saw strike the wire and fall, and the appearance of those found dead was, in all respects, similar to that of those seen to strike and fall. Among them were a few young quails, flickers and robins; but the majority of the birds were larks, whose flight is singularly wayward and impulsive, which may account in a measure for their inability to clear the wire."

There was another notice of a strike in the obscure journal, Familiar Science and Fancier's Journal of May 1878, when "J.M. W." reported that a woodcock had killed by telegraph wires.

In 1879, a whistling swan was killed on March 28 when it struck a telegraph wire near Byron Station, Minnesota. This information was given in a brief article by H.W. Avery in Forest and Stream (12: 265) which published numerous items on bird distribution and occurrence, and the lore of their natural history.

A short few years later, an account was issued in the Canadian Sportsman and Naturalist issue of January 1883 indicated the international aspect of birds striking the wires:

"Woodcock in December. Early on the morning of the 16th December a man captured a woodcock which was running on the ground in the vicinity of Beaver Hall Terrace in this city. This fact would no have been ascertained, were it not for the not for the numerous telegraph wires which surround the streets. During the previous night, the bird in its southern flight, struck against a wire with force sufficient to take off the skin and feathers, from the front portion of the head, above the base of it's beak. Many woodcock are killed in the spring and fall by telegraph wires, as they migrate only at night, and generally fly low."

Some further morbid details were issued from Nebraska, in the April 1885 Auk article "Bird Fatality Along Nebraska Railroads" written by Edwin H. Barbour, associated with the university at Lincoln. His espoused view was that many of the Horned Larks found dead were because trains hit the larks congregated along the tracks across the plains barren of trees.

"There is a certain bird fatality along railroad lines which is charged to the telegraph wires. Doubtless they are the chief executioners, but not the dark destroyer of all the dead birds along our railroads. In Nebraska more fatality, as I believe, is to be charged to the moving train than to the wires. ... The prairie grasses are very short and give but little protection, and large numbers of misguided birds seek shelter in the lee of the steel rails of railroad tracks.
"These are almost wholly Horned Larks. As one walks along the track at night they fly up in considerable numbers from their dangerous shelter, especially in severe weather. The Larks are attracted thither as much by the food and the grain dribbled along the way by passing trains as by the protection which the treacherous rails offer. Crouching at night in the shelter of the rails, and stupefied by the noise and light of approaching trains they rise too late, are struck by the flying train, and thrown dead to either side of the track. I have seen them lying thus in scattered bunches of ten or a dozen. Railroad men say it is the work of the train, and such I believe it to be.
"It is the habit of these Larks to fly low, just skimming the surface of the ground, and it is highly improbable that they came to an untimely end by striking the telegraph wires."

Here are some more notes from 1889, among the notes for a collecting trip to Lac-qui-parle County, in Minnesota. George G. Cantwell wrote of the wires along the railway tracks:

[pinnated grouse, 1864 rendition]

Pinnated grouse.

"During my stay I was surprised at the large number of birds killed by flying against the telegraph wires. Although I was on the tracks very little of the time I found no less than six Ducks, two Field Plover, one Pectoral Sandpiper, and one Marsh Hawk killed by the wires, and on my way home I saw a Meadow Lark strike itself and fall as limp as a rag. Think of the large number that must have been hidden by the grass that I did not see. The section man assured me that in the fall it is no uncommon occurrence to find five or six dead Duck and Prairie Chickens along the track on his section, and that rarely a day passes that he does not find one or more. The Marsh Hawk mentioned I found hanging to the wire by his wing, which was broken and wrapped several times around.
"A Wood Duck had struck the wire full in the breast with such force as to sever the neck and lay the back open from side to side a distance of three inches. Think of the thousands that are killed in this way in the prairie regions, instances of which are too often laid at the collector's door by people who don't know any better."

At least Mr. Cantwell was "well pleased" with his delightful trip despite the comments of dead birds which ended his article in the journal, Ornithologist and Oologist.

Another pertinent article was published shortly thereafter when W. Otto Emerson took the time to write about the "destruction of birds by wire" in the Condor, another fledgling journal of those years. His notes were for 1898 and into the early 1900s.

Mentioned? Sandpipers, with 40 noted dead. The next day: remains of some "thirty odd" phalaropes and sandpipers. Emerson watched as the birds hit the wires.

"The destruction of shore birds goes on night and day the year round. I asked some of the salt-pond owners if they noticed birds flying against the wires. They said some mornings after the spring or fall flights, they had seen dozens lying along the road. Cats from warehouses and dwellings had learned the convenient larder and had grown fat, while Japanese and Italian workmen imitated the cats."

Lapse ahead and at the start of the 20th century, the Strand Magazine of January-June 1902 had this new information from the "Arcadian Calendar":

"Travelling, as many species on migration do, at night, there is always the risk of coming against a telegraph wire when descending, and the risk is doubled when there is a high wind. Birds are apt to take too much for granted when moving from place to place. When the first wires were stretched along the Highland railway the men working on the line found it well worth while to keep their eyes open when going to work in the morning; the grouse committed suicide by dozens every night against telegraph and fence wires."

For the woodcock, its character was summarized by William Beebe, in his 1906 book "The Bird, Its Form and Function in the chapter on senses:

"A woodcock tears through the thickest cover as if it were clear space, avoiding every obstacle. The only things to the accurate perception of which birds' eyes appear not to have accommodated themselves are telegraph-wires and light-houses; thousands of birds are annually hurled against these objects to their destruction." Page 208-209

William T. Hornaday described the threat in a succinct manner in his book about vanishing wildlife and "its extermination and preservation" in the section on the unseen foes of wild birds The deaths did make a difference to the numbers of birds. Once again the best words are the original verbiage, on page 77:

"Telegraph and Telephone Wires. - Mr. Daniel C. Beard has strongly called my attention to the slaughter of birds by telegraph wires that has come under his personal observation. His country home, at Redding, Connecticut, is near the main line of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railway, along which a line of very large poles carries a great number of wires. The wires are so numerous that they form a barrier through which it is difficult for any bird to fly and come out alive and unhurt."

Note the blunt use of the word slaughter.

"Mr. Beard says that among the birds killed or crippled by flying against those wires near Redding he has seen the following species: olive backed thrush, white-throated sparrow and other sparrows, oriole, blue jay, rail, ruffed grouse, and woodcock. It is a common practice for employees of the railway, and others living along the line, to follow the line and pick up on one excursion enough birds for a pot-pie.
"Beyond question, the telegraph and telephone wires of the United States annually exact a heavy toll in bird life, and claim countless thousands of victims. They may well be set down as one of the unseen forces destructive to birds.
"Naturally, we ask, what can be done about it?
"I am told that in Scotland such slaughter is prevented by the attachment of small tags or dics to the telephone wires, at intervals of a few rods, sufficiently near that they attract the attention of flying birds, and reveal the line of an obstruction. This system should be adopted in all regions where the conditions are such that birds kill themselves against telegraph wires, and an excellent place to begin would be along the line of the N.Y., N.H. & H. railway."

History does not indicate if any such efforts were initiated.

In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was a regulatory measure that was enacted, and could have a means to positively address the myriad of bird strike deaths during subsequent migratory passages that are a tradition of endless eons that began and continued to be hampered and inhibited by so many new and deadly structures.

Notes from the era of decades past that are mentioned are just the beginnings for bird mortality from human constructs. These known examples are followed decades with further bird strikes due to a continual and expansive spread of structures and wires for communication and power, towers to beam numbing television to the masses, and in the most recent decades, cellular towers are everywhere and beyond. Wind turbines are the latest obstruction poised above the land, in the skies which at some historic point were the haven for the winged ones.

So many birds are destroyed by striking lines of various sorts across the land. In the modern era there is such a vast array of power lines. A grid it's called. Add in buildings which pose dangers due to glass exteriors, wind power turbines, cellular and communications towers, television transmission towers, and other similarities.

Through the decades there has been continual destruction of birds striking something. Conditions now are a huge magnitude of danger greater than at the start of the 20th century. Or at the beginning of the most recent millenium.

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