Article image

Most birds found dead near power lines were illegally shot, not electrocuted

Birds that have lost their lives near power lines, often perceived as victims of electrocution, are more frequently dying due to illegal shooting, according to a new study published by Cell Press in the journal iScience.

The researchers have uncovered a startling statistic: among birds found dead near power lines where the cause of death could be determined, 66 percent had been illegally shot.

Focus of the study

Birds often encounter life-threatening danger near power lines, especially when they spread their wings to take off or land on power poles, making contact with two energized parts of the line simultaneously. 

This has spurred energy companies to invest significant time and resources in creating bird-safe electrical infrastructure, from installing safe perches to insulating energized elements. But now, researchers suggest a shift in the primary cause of death for birds along power lines.

Eve Thomason, a research associate at Boise State University’s Raptor Research Center and the study’s first author, emphasized the importance of accurately identifying the root of conservation issues. 

“Solving conservation problems only works when we can accurately identify the cause of those problems,” said Thomason. “In this case, we need to know how birds are dying along power lines so that we can come up with strategies to reduce bird deaths.”

How the research was conducted 

Prior to launching the study, Thomason worked on avian risk assessment for a power company where she began noticing a distressing pattern. Even in areas where precautions were taken to prevent avian electrocution, birds were still dying. On closer inspection, she realized many of these birds had been shot, prompting her to orchestrate a comprehensive study examining this disturbing trend.

Over a period of four years, Thomason and her team traversed 196 kilometers of power lines in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Oregon, investigating and collecting bird carcasses. They retrieved a total of 410 carcasses, the majority of which were federally protected species like eagles, hawks, and ravens. Back in the lab, they worked tirelessly to determine each bird’s cause of death.

“What’s unique to our study is that all remains were documented, collected, and X-rayed. We tried to identify the cause of death for every bird we found,” explained Thomason. “Prior studies typically only documented birds that were in relatively good condition, and X-rays were only sometimes performed.”

What the researchers discovered 

The meticulous method used by the researchers yielded more precise results, with X-rays often revealing bird shootings that weren’t apparent from external examination. In one instance, a bald eagle believed to have died from electrocution was X-rayed, revealing numerous shotgun pellets and entrance wounds. The evidence suggested the eagle had been shot and subsequently made contact with the power lines as it fell.

The researchers are eager to extend their surveys into new areas to gain a better understanding of the scope of illegal bird shooting and explore possible reasons behind this behavior. These findings can assist law enforcement in planning patrols and investigations to curb such unlawful actions.

“We are just beginning to understand this problem, and in a lot of cases, it’s really difficult to know what’s going on,” said Thomason. “Here’s what the research tells us: when people have been caught doing this activity, we’ve learned that sometimes people shoot protected birds for fun, and sometimes they’re trying to protect their livestock from predators.” 

“Because of the complexity of this situation, our team is very lucky to have such great relationships across all the government agencies and utility companies, and it will be vital that, in the future, all these stakeholders are part of crafting solutions.”

More about illegal bird hunting

Poaching is the act of killing, trapping, or capturing birds in violation of local, regional, or international laws. It poses serious threats to bird populations, particularly migratory birds, which often traverse multiple countries with varying regulations.

This illegal activity can take several forms. Sometimes it involves shooting birds for sport or collection purposes, with rare species often targeted for their perceived value. Other times, it’s for consumption or use in traditional medicines.

The effects can be devastating. Not only does it reduce bird populations, sometimes to the point of endangering species, but it also disrupts ecosystems. Birds play essential roles such as pollinating plants, controlling pests, and dispersing seeds.

Efforts to combat this illegal activity include stricter law enforcement, education and awareness campaigns about the importance of bird conservation, and establishment of protected areas where birds can safely breed and live. Technology also plays a part, with drones and satellite tracking increasingly used to monitor bird populations and catch illegal activity.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day