Invisible menace: Methane flares scorching birds at U.S. landfills

National Geographic discusses an Invisible menace: Methane flares scorching birds at U.S. landfills. Waste facilities must dispose of methane gas by burning it off—but birds, particularly hawks and owls, are flying into the colorless flames.

In October, wildlife rehabilitators at the New Mexico Wildlife Center took in a red-tailed hawk with puzzling injuries. The raptor’s wings, normally padded with thick, dark-brown feathers, were so badly burned that they looked skeletal. Its chest and head were also scorched.

“It kind of looked like it ran through fire,” says Hilary DeVries, a wildlife rehabilitator at the center, located in Española. Staff thought the male bird had been electrocuted, perhaps by a power line. But he lacked entry or exit wounds, lesions, or sores—all signs of such an encounter.

What burned the bird, as the New Mexico rescuers soon found out, was methane flaring, a federally mandated practice for disposing of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in landfills across the United States. Landfills use a device called a methane burner to convert the gas into water and carbon dioxide, which traps less heat in the atmosphere than methane. But as the burner’s flames shoot out of a tall exhaust pipe, or stack, at heights of up to 30 feet, they remain colorless—and birds can fly directly into them without warning. (Read why three billion birds have been lost in North America since 1970.)

While the problem of burned birds, mostly birds of prey, is widespread—documented cases exist in dozens of states, including Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Colorado—there are no official counts of how many have been injured or killed. New Jersey’s cases have been more publicized, with several raptors treated at the state’s rescue centers.

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