May 6, 2016 - 3:25 pm
By Joelle Gehring | FCC Biologist

The FCC is often lauded for expanding broadband availability, protecting consumer rights, leading spectrum innovation policies and more. Today, the Commission is equally proud to be recognized for our important work on an issue that’s my focus and one that others may not often read about: migratory bird conservation. This year, we are honored to be selected as the winner of the Presidential Migratory Bird Stewardship Award in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Every year, millions of birds migrate thousands of miles across North America to Central America and elsewhere as seasons change, following the weather from cooler to more temperate climates. Ducks, geese, sparrows, warblers and other North American migratory birds follow these flight patterns annually. The Arctic Tern, for example, migrates the farthest distance annually at approximately 44,000 miles round trip.

The Commission has an important protective role to play.

Communications towers – both wired and wireless – serve as deadly roadblocks on the paths of birds as they travel. Current research estimates that approximately 7 million birds collide with towers in North America every year during their spring and fall migrations. A documented 239 species of birds have collided with towers resulting in fatalities. For more than fifty years, migratory birds have been documented to collide with communications towers, as well as other tall structures. Wildlife biologists have concluded that migratory birds are attracted to lights used at night to warn pilots of a tower or other hazard, and appear to be more attracted to steady-burning (i.e., non-flashing) lights. Their attraction to the tower lights results in collisions with tower guy wires and the tower structure itself.

For the past six years, the FCC partnered with the FAA to protect migratory birds and to address this problem and revise the standards used for lighting communications towers and transition from steady-burning tower lights to flashing tower lights. The publication of revised lighting rules last year marked the culmination of a multi-year effort to significantly reduce mortality rates of migratory birds resulting from collisions with communications towers.

The FAA and FCC worked together to examine alternative lighting configurations and issued new specifications to eliminate non-flashing lights on towers, thereby reducing the attraction to migratory birds without compromising pilot safety. A comparative study of bird fatalities associated with communications towers suggests that these new lighting configurations could reduce bird collisions and resulting fatalities by 70 percent each year. Going forward, new and altered towers more than 150 feet tall may only use flashing lights.  We are also encouraging owners to extinguish non-flashing lights on towers built before the new FAA standards took effect.

These efforts will result in significant reductions in avian collisions with communications towers every year in the U.S. and Canada and prevent millions of avian fatalities each year. And, extinguishing or eliminating the use of non-flashing lights on towers can save industry construction costs, maintenance costs, energy costs, and carbon output. There is little to no cost to tower owners who use the streamlined process of extinguishing tower lights on existing towers above 350 feet.

Learn more about the project to revise lighting standards and reduce migratory bird fatalities. Learn more about the new standards.