Are smart meters chasing away birds from Rolling Hills?
By BRIAN BECKLEY
Renton Reporter Assistant Editor
February 22, 2013 · Updated 12:50 PM
Paul Ouellette has lived in the Rolling Hills neighborhood for decades and since his retirement he has spent a lot of time in his backyard, which contains several bird feeders.
Normally at this time of year, his backyard is filled with birds; finches, chickadees and even hummingbirds.
“It’s very nice to see them flying around the yard all the time,” he said.
But this year is different. This year an eerie silence has settled over Ouellette’s yard - and his entire neighborhood.
“The birds are gone,” he said this past week. “Our feeders are still full.”
Ouellette said some people tell him it’s the hawks or that this winter has been foggy and that’s thrown off the birds.
But Ouellette, a retired civil engineer, isn’t buying it. He’s seen winters like this before and there have been birds.
“If you feed the birds, you know when they’re (usually around),” he said.
But there is a difference in the neighborhood this winter.
Beginning in mid-December, the city began installing new smart-water meters on homes all throughout Rolling Hills. The meters send information to the city four times a day to help monitor water usage without having to send workers to check individual meters. By mid-January, the entire Rolling Hills North neighborhood had been equipped with the new meters.
And the birds were gone.
“Right after the meter was installed . . . I was noticing my bird feeders weren’t going down,” Ouellette said.
In the past Ouellette said he was spending about $30 a month on bird seed.
“I haven’t bought any for two months,” he said.
Ouellette began asking his neighbors if they’d experienced anything similar.
Bruce Chase, who lives down the street from Ouellette, said he and his wife also noticed something strange this year.
“Ever since they’ve installed that smart meter, we have not seen a bird,” Chase said. “They’re just gone.”
Chase’s house sits along a greenbelt in the neighborhood and he said he and his wife specifically noticed the lack of hummingbirds at their feeders. Usually, they’d get three or four birds every hour stopping by for a quick meal.
“Now we’re lucky to see one a day,” he said.
Ouellette has taken his concerns to the city, including an appearance at the Feb. 11 City Council meeting, asking the council to look into the continued use of smart meters through out the city.
The city’s meters work by sending out a one-minute, 900 MHZ pulse of information every four hours. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, only one meter can send the information at a time so each meter in a neighborhood has to wait its turn to send the information to the controller, located in Rolling Hills on a water tower.
Because of this, there is almost a constant wave of the pulse streaming out from an area.
“It’s constantly doing it,” Ouellette said.
While there is much information and misinformation on the effects of the high-frequency pulse on the health of humans, there is little research into the effect on small wildlife such as birds. The meters operate at a frequency similar to cell phones and other portable communications devices and while some minor health effects have been reported, such as problems sleeping or dizziness or nausea, the meters are generally considered safe for humans.
Ouellette said he thinks the city’s meters may be different somehow, as the power and gas meters in the neighborhood were also fitted with smart meters last year and they did not seem to have an effect on the neighborhood’s wildlife.
But since the city’s have gone on, he and Chase both said the change was obvious and immediate.
“Normally you can walk into a neighborhood and hear birds,” Chase said. “Here there’s nothing. And at this time of the year, it should be getting noisier.”
Ouellette said his research on the Internet has shown similar issues elsewhere, on small animals such as squirrels – which are also missing form the neighborhood these days, he said – and bees.
“I don’t know what the impact is,” Ouellette said. “I want the City of Renton to do some research.”
According to Utility Engineering Supervisor-Water Abdoul Gafour, the city has no information at this time on the effects of the meters on wildlife. Gafour said the city is looking into the matter further for discussion at the Utilities Committee meeting on Monday. The issue was added to the committee’s agenda after Ouellette spoke to the council.
Toby Ross, science officer for the Seattle Audubon Society also said he had not heard of this issue prior to getting a call recently from Ouellette.
Ross said there was “very little research” into the matter and is also checking with other local experts.
Ross also stressed that there could be many other reasons for missing birds, though he did not rule out the meters.
“It could just be a coincidence,” Ross said.
And while it might be a coincidence, Ouellette and his neighbors are concerned it might be the harbinger of a bigger problem.
Like the canary miners used to take into a coal mine to warn them if toxic gases were building up, Ouellette worries that once again our feathered friends are giving us a warning.
“The birds are indicators of a potential problem,” he said.
The Utilities Commission will meet at 4 p.m. Monday in the Council Committee Room, City Hall. A briefing on smart meter installation is on the scheduled agenda.