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A new push to avert cell-tower bird strikes

As many as 50 million birds are killed annually in US cell-tower collisions. As more towers go up, builders and researchers eye solutions.

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Today FAA regulations require both steady red lights and flashing red or flashing white ones. What Gehring found: Solid steady red lights were a big problem – creating an aura during cloudy weather that drew in birds.

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When solid reds were removed, bird deaths fell 71 percent, according to Gehring's study, which has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication later this year by the Journal of Ecological Applications.

Gehring's lighting discovery is "a major breakthrough," says Albert Manville, a senior wildlife biologist with US Fish and Wildlife Service in Arlington, Va. But that's hardly the end of the matter, he and others say.

The critical question now becomes: Would turning off the solid red lamps on communications towers, and switching to flashing lights only, mean that pilots would be less able to see them?

If that turns out to be the case, Dr. Manville concedes, those lamps will surely stay on and birds will remain at risk.

"With demand growing so rapidly for more cellphone communications and more emergency broadcasting, and homeland security seeing explosive growth, we know that the growth is going to proceed," Manville says. "The question becomes: How can we put these up in the most bird-friendly way?"

That's what the FAA and FCC now seem set to find out. A spokesman for the FAA says the agency is currently pursuing a new round of testing to determine whether alternate lighting for towers would still be effective in alerting pilots. The FCC, under pressure from the recent appeals-court ruling, is proposing the possibility of altering its lighting scheme for towers and is soliciting public comment.

All of which comes as good news to bird lovers like Darin Schroeder, who directs government relations for the American Bird Conservancy, the Washington-based group whose lawsuit triggered the recent ruling. His group is now partnering with the tower-construction industry and with researchers to examine alternate lighting.

Spokesmen for the Personal Communication Industry Association, the wireless infrastructure association as well as CTIA – the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry – did not return phone calls seeking comment on steps now under way for a tentative working-group agreement on alternate lighting for their towers.

"We know there's a need for emergency broadcasting and we certainly don't want to jeopardize human life," Mr. Schroeder says. "We're not asking anybody to take down their towers or not build them. We think we can work with industry to save millions of birds from dying unnecessarily and still have a great communications system."