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Birds: Too Hot

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Too Hot
Stopping landfill methane burners from scorching raptors.

In landfills blanketed with soggy cardboard and rotting food, raptors perch atop tall methane burners, looking for rodents that scurry around the rolling hills of garbage. But with the easy meal comes risk—when landfills burn off the methane gas that builds up as the trash decomposes, the flames can scorch the birds, causing burned wings and tails, melted beaks, singed talons, and, occasionally, death. Now wildlife rehabilitators, Long Island’s Huntington Audubon, and Audubon New York are teaming up with solid-waste associations to protect the majestic birds.

“When we heard what was happening, saw the pictures, we realized this was an issue we could really do something about,” says Meg Morris, chair of the Federation of New York Solid Waste Associations.

Morris’s group is among the first waste industry associations to join the Save Our Raptors campaign. The national initiative, launched by Huntington Audubon president Stella Miller, aims to raise awareness, encourage alternative flare designs, and promote perch installation at landfills. The Oklahoma Raptor Center, Illinois-based Save Our American Raptors (SOAR), and Hoo’s Woods Raptor Center in Wisconsin are also members.

Bernadette Ritcher, an Illinois raptor rehabilitator who founded SOAR, first started treating singed raptors in the mid-1990s. (Methane flare burns gained broad attention after a 2008 National Wildlife Rehabilitators paper.) She’s found that it can take up to a year of treatment before the birds fly free again. “The discovery that the burns were often caused by landfill methane torches was significant, because it’s something that can be remedied,” she says.

The coalition is making headway in New York and other states, and is working with the Solid Waste Association of North America, a national waste management trade association, to help spread awareness to operators throughout the United States. “Getting SWANA engaged is the most vital thing we can do, as they have the power to educate landfill operators across the nation in one fell swoop,” Miller says.

If outreach doesn’t work, the group could turn to the courts: Raptors are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so landfill operators could be liable for up to $15,000 per injured bird or face jail time. “I think many just don’t know what to do about it and are not intentionally breaking laws,” says Miller. “Getting the information out there is the first step to solving the problem.”

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