How Come Birds Don't Get
Electrocuted When They
Perch on Electrical Wires?
|By Kathy Wollard|
Illustration by Debra Solomon
|How can birds sit on electrical wires and not get electrocuted?
asks Jonathan Sanchez, a student in Lynbrook, NY.
High above the ground, electrical and telephone poles and their connecting wires must seem made for birds, like artificial trees with limbs that stretch on forever. Sometimes a hundred birds will be stretched out along a wire, in a kind of high-tension convention.
How come a bird on a wire doesn't get shocked? When the bird perches on a live wire, her body becomes charged--for the moment, it's at the same voltage as the wire. But no current flows into her body. A body is a poor conductor compared to copper wire, so there's no reason for electrons to take a detour through the bird. More importantly, electrons current flow from a region of high voltage to one of low voltage. The drifting current, in effect, ignores the bird.
But if a bird (or a power line worker) accidentally touches an electrical "ground" while in contact with the high-voltage wire, she completes an electrical circuit. A ground is a region of approximately zero voltage. The earth, and anything touching it that can conduct current, is the ground.
Like water flowing over a dam into a river, current surges through the bird (or person's) body on its way into the ground. Severe injury or death by electrocution is the result.
That's why a squirrel can run across an electrical line, but sadly die when its foot makes contact with the (grounded) transformer on the pole at wire's end.
It's also why drivers and passengers are warned to stay inside the car if it runs into a downed power line. Touching the ground with your foot would complete the circuit: Electrons would flow from the wire, into the car, and through you on their way into the earth. (Inside the car you are usually protected by the car's four rubber tires, which act as insulators between car and ground.)
Likewise, birds can get in trouble with power lines if wing or wrist bones--or wet feathers--connect bare wires and grounds.
Raptors (birds of prey) are especially likely to be killed by power lines, particularly in the western U.S. In wide-open plains and deserts, power poles are often the only high perches available for hunters like Bald and Golden eagles and Great Horned owls, who survey the landscape for prey and take off into rising wind currents.
Such large birds can easily contact two wires or a wire and a transformer with their great wingspread. And raptors can easily brush against a live wire while settling onto a (grounded) pole-top. Thousands are killed by power lines each year.
How to protect big birds? Power lines can be made less dangerous by widening the gap between conducting and ground wires, insulating wires and metal parts, and moving wires farther away from pole tops. And guards can be built around favorite raptor perches.
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Copyright © 1999-2003 by Kathy Wollard & Debra Solomon