Methane gas flares ignited by waste landfills are scorching owls and hawks and other birds in the US.

Methane flaring

Methane flaring shoots colorless flames into the air. It is a practice that is federally mandated for methane disposal. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is present in US landfills, and these landfills use methane burners to convert it to carbon dioxide and water.

Carbon dioxide is a less potent greenhouse gas compared to methane.

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Burning the birds

Unfortunately, when the flames shoot out from the stack or tall exhaust pipe, its colorless flames can reach high at 30 feet, where birds can fly into them directly. 

The victims are usually birds of prey, such as owls and hawks. The incidences are widespread, occurring in dozens of US states such as Colorado, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma.

There is no data on just how many birds are harmed and killed.

According to Chris Soucy, executive director of the New Jersey rehabilitation center The Raptor Trust, the injuries from the methane burns are horrific, even though many birds regenerate their feathers by molting. For those which are badly burned, healing could take two years. According to Soucy, very long captivity can be detrimental for a wild bird.

According to Soucy, the flames usually obliterate the bodies of smaller birds. Meanwhile, larger birds can still fly away but stumble to the ground, where they starve eventually due to their incapacity for hunting and migration.

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No solution

For Oklahoma Raptor Center director Gary Siftar, no solution is currently available. He has encountered approximately a dozen burned birds from 2005 to the present. He says the problem is widespread.

Landfills attract raptors

Raptors or birds of prey are specifically vulnerable to methane flare burning because they like to perch on these burners while they look for prey. Landfills have the appearance of grassy hills, which is the ideal hunting ground for raptors because prey can be easily seen for miles.

According to Rick Harness, a wildlife biologist, many landfills are located remotely, and this makes injured birds not easy to find. He says it is a silent issue that is not being researched.

Harness says red-tailed hawks are the primary victims, as well as great horned owls. 

What is being done

There are landfills that tried to protect the birds. One such attempt is the large cage installed around the burner by the North Arlington Kingsland Landfill in New Jersey in 2017. It had been successful, but last September, it was damaged by a storm. It was repaired by October, but before that, three birds have already been injured and beyond saving.

According to the New Jersey Audubon Society in Bergen County president Don Torino, putting the methane burners in a cage is probably the only way that the birds can be kept safe. He thinks, however, that most landfills won't install such barriers.

Burying surrounding electrical lines has been proposed to discourage the birds to use the utility poles for perching. Also, taller structures may be built to induce them to stay away from stacks.

While no foolproof solution is implemented, methane gas flares could continue to harm owls and hawks in waste landfills.

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