Pillar Mountain wind turbines

The sun shines through the blades of a Pillar Mountain wind turbine Friday, July 27, 2012. The next phase of a project to build three more turbines will soon send a crane towering above the top of Pillar Mountain. (James Brooks photo)

From California to Cape Cod, spinning blades are swiping across the sky, generating cheap and clean electricity.

According to a new study, however, America’s wind turbines have a hidden toll — an estimated 888,000 bat and 573,000 bird deaths per year.

Those figures are alarming, but according to local birders, Kodiak isn’t contributing to the toll. In the four years since the first wind turbine began spinning on Pillar Mountain, not a single bird death has been attributed to the turbines.

“I think ours are in a good spot, a bird-friendly spot,” said Stacy Studebaker, a Kodiak Audubon Society member and one of Kodiak’s best-known birders.

Bird deaths are more than trivia for wind power plants. Bald eagles, including the ones that flock to Cannery Row, 1,200 feet below the turbines, are protected by federal law. Kill one, and it’s a felony — even if you’re a multimillion-dollar corporation.

According to records obtained by the Associated Press and published this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating 18 bird-death cases involving wind-power facilities. Seven of those cases have been referred to the Justice Department, which declined comment.

Robin Corcoran, the avian biologist at the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, is the person called when a bald eagle is found dead. She said she’s never been called for a bird killed or found dead near the Pillar Mountain turbines.

“It doesn’t seem to be an issue,” she said.

Hard statistics are hard to come by elsewhere in the United States. No law mandates the reporting of bird deaths, and the federal government operates principally on voluntary disclosure or observers’ accounts.

Darron Scott, CEO of the Kodiak Electric Association, said KEA conducted a bird study before construction began on the first Pillar Mountain turbines. That study, unveiled in 2007, found the Pillar Mountain site has about two to 35 times less bird use than the average wind farm in the United States.

“There is nothing flagged so far as a large concern,” Scott told a crowd of Kodiak birders in 2007.

Experience has borne out that statement.

A post-construction study performed by KEA found bald eagles tended to fly away from turbines in motion.

Kodiak’s doesn’t have a large wind farm by Lower 48 standards, and its large, slow-moving blades may be an easier target for birds to avoid. “They're smart enough to stay away from them and they don't get sucked into them,” Studebaker said.

That doesn’t mean all birds stay away from the turbines, of course.

“I’ve even seen, on windy days, some ravens playing around the turbines. Ravens take advantage of updrafts, and they seem to love playing around them, especially during mating season,” Studebaker said.

Contact Mirror editor James Brooks at editor@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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