Tower Kills

(This column was first published in the October 7, 1996 Buffalo News.)

    If you look ahead when you drive south along Route 400 at night, you can see red lights winking high above the ridges. Easily mistaken for low flying aircraft, they are instead lights on the transmission towers for local television stations. We pay little attention to those towers, and neither do some of the birds migrating south through this area -- to their misfortune.

    Early one morning in late September I drove up from South Wales on Warner Hill Road and Center Street to visit those TV towers. It was the beginning of a beautiful early fall day, the broad cloudless sky a bright blue in the rays of the newly risen sun. To the northwest the hills gave way to a broad plain extending off to blue-gray Lake Erie. At its corner downtown Buffalo appeared in miniature.

    I had never realized how high these towers reached. Even though the sky appeared cloudless, each of them disappeared into a thin mist and I could not see the tops of their red and white scaffolding. And no wonder. A sign at Channel 7 recorded the altitude at that point as 1735 feet and the tower height an additional 1076 feet. These TV structures are like 80 story buildings erected atop hills already the equivalent of 100 stories above downtown Buffalo. For comparison, our tallest Buffalo building at 529 feet, Marine Midland Tower, has 40 stories, and the tallest self-supporting structure in the world, Toronto's CN Tower, is the equivalent of about 140 stories.

    The reason for the great height is apparent. It allows these stations to broadcast their straight line television signals to every home in western New York and nearby Canada. But those metal structures and their associated reinforcing cables create problems for nocturnal bird migrants. I was visiting the towers with Arthur Clark, curator of vertebrate zoology for the Buffalo Museum of Science, to record some of the birds that had flown into them.

    Art has kept track of nocturnal avian migrants killed at these towers for 30 years and this year has been one of the best for his records, which he adds, "means one of the worst for the birds." This fall he has picked up well over 300 at the tower bases. Almost certainly at least that many more fell into the deep grass nearby or were carried off by scavengers.

    We had no sooner gotten out of our cars at the first tower when we came upon a pile of perhaps a dozen tiny feathers, all that remained after a great horned owl had breakfasted on the bird's body. As Art gathered the few feathers carefully into an envelope, he identified them as coming from a black-and-white warbler. To me this also identified Art Clark as an ornithological Sherlock Homes.

    We found about 50 more birds at the three towers, including many other warblers and vireos, a few thrushes and sparrows, and a catbird. Almost all of the bodies had been ravaged by local horned owls, for whom these fields serve as autumnal smorgasbords.

    Why do birds hit these towers? This is a difficult question about which Clark is only willing to speculate. Two possible answers: the towers and cables may be struck at random by individual birds in much larger flocks or the required aircraft warning lights may disorient or even attract them. (Perhaps someone should climb up some night to gather first hand evidence. Any volunteers?)

    No one likes to witness the death of birds at these necessary structures, but the birds' demise at least provides this fine scientist with evidence about nighttime migration patterns.