Dear Umbra,

I saw the following on the CNN website. Can this possibly be true? I see birds hit, land on, peck at, and poop on power lines all the time, but I’ve never seen one burst into flames.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) — Weather forecasters predicted little relief Monday for firefighters battling wildfires that have scorched thousands of acres and forced hundreds of people to leave their homes in California.

Firefighters tackling the 5,700-acre Foothill blaze, about 25 miles north of Los Angeles, said they hoped to contain it in a canyon Monday afternoon.

The wildfire began when a red-tailed hawk hit power lines and caught fire, said Jim Dellamonica, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The bird fell to the ground, setting plants on fire, he said.

Karen
Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Hot off the wire?

Dearest Karen,

Yes, and it’s of high concern to avian advocates. If a bird on a wire brushes against a second wire or the ground, end of bird. Birds can short electrical systems, keel over dead, or burst into flames.

To understand electrical flow, imagine for a moment the European settlement of the Western United States. Masses of electrons seek new lands where fewer electrons dwell, and they seek the path of least resistance. Pioneer electrons will choose to ride through an open valley rather than scale a sheer cliff; hence electrons encountering two sparrow feet on their copper wire will choose the wire as the path of least resistance. No benefit to be gained by going up and through bird when metal is available.

If, however, a larger bird should provide a bridge over the chasm between two wires, the eager electron explorers ride right across, sensing open lands on the far side. In other words, electricity, seeing a chance to complete a new circuit, will use the bird as a conductor. That’s bad news for the bird, as you might imagine. The voltage in electric high wires is high enough to cook (and, yes, possibly ignite) a bird.

Apparently, fire-starting is most frequent with larger raptors whose wingspans are big enough to bridge wire gaps and who are likely to live in arid fire-prone regions. Bird advocates work to adapt and insulate wires and poles, but it’s slow going. Poor birds. As if human settlement hadn’t made their lives hard enough already.

Flightily,
Umbra