Texas Tech Researcher To Study If Wind Turbines Impact Burrowing Owl Habitat

By Carlos Morales

In the coming years, more wind turbines are expected to be built in Texas, as wind-produced power becomes more prominent. Just this year, wind surpassed coal as an energy source in Texas.

But more wind turbines might come at a cost to another fixture of the West Texas sky—burrowing owls.

A researcher at Texas Tech will soon study whether wind turbines are impacting burrowing owl habitats. (flickr.com/photos/beckymatsubara/ (CC BY 2.0))

In the 70s and 80s, Texas Tech researcher Clint Boal, says burrowing owls were killed, flying into “traditional” turbines. Research has documented this deadly threat to birds, but Boal says “contemporary turbines” don’t pose that much of a risk anymore.

“[W]e don’t really think that that is a likely risk for burrowing owls because the turbine blades are a lot higher up,” Boal says. “And then the poles—or the structure—that the turbines are on is such that there’s no place for the owls to perch on.”

So Boal, an ornithologist specializing in raptors, is putting together a team to look into whether the footprints of wind turbine farms are disrupting the habitats of burrowing owls, which—as their name suggests—make their homes in burrows dug out by other animals like prairie dogs.

The research is being funded through the U.S. Department of Energy.

“How [the turbines’ footprint] may influence both the owls and the owls’ prey or what builds the burrows the owls will use is not really very well understood,” Boal says.

The research teams will study burrowing owls found in two main stretches of land, one near Amarillo and one outside of Lubbock— areas that have become popular for wind turbines because of wind-energy potential. There they’ll track down owls that live in or close to wind turbine fields and attach GPS transmitters to the tiny brown birds.

The transmitters will record the bird’s flight paths throughout the day and night.

“And from that that we can understand the owl’s home range during the breeding season, where they’re going to forage, do they fly into the fields and just ignore them…or are they avoiding those turbine fields.”

Boal says his research team will also look at whether the birds, as they fly south into Mexico during migration, will travel through turbine fields or avoid them.

“I’m not convinced that there’s a conflict between owls and turbines,” Boal says. “I’m not convinced that there is not.”

The research could prove key as more turbines are expected to be built in the coming year. Boal says if it turns out turbines are affecting burrowing owls, developers can use the research to try and mitigate impact.

“And if there isn’t a problem, then that’s good to know because we can proceed knowing with some confidence that—at least for a species that is in otherwise decline—that the turbines aren’t causing some farther detrimental impact to their populations.”

The research is slated to begin early 2020.

About Carlos Morales

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director, Border and Immigration Reporter, and Morning Edition Host.
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