OKRaptors Methane Burns

Raptor Burns from Landfill Methane Burners

Published in NWRA Wildlife Rehabilitation Bulletin Volume 26, Number 2 - Fall 2008

Original article 15-May-2008


Landfills can be sources of environmental hazards, and often have a negative impact on wildlife. Some of the more common impacts on wildlife are:

                    Strangulation from six–pack plastic can rings

                    Fatal intestinal blockage from ingesting plastic wrap

                    Loss of circulation to various body parts from discarded fishing line often leading to amputation (Noyes 2006).

Solid waste landfills (i.e., sanitary landfills) contain organic matter that produces Landfill Gas (LFG) during decomposition. LFG is composed primarily of methane (CH4), which threatens human health and contributes to global warming. Flaring (the burning of natural gas) or utilizing methane for energy reduces its climate change impact, eliminates an explosive hazard, and reduces harmful chemicals by incineration (Heimlich 2007). More emphasis is needed in the future on obtaining useful energy from methane rather than wasteful burning in stacks (Figure 1). There are many other industrial uses that create stack burned gases, however this paper will focus on landfill methane burners and their negative impact on raptor species. This paper is meant for general awareness of the methane burner issue and to solicit information from other rehabilitators that have received burned birds or other species in order to prevent future injuries and deaths.


The nature of the landfill produces a treeless landscape and often attracts an abundance of rodents, an excellent food source for various raptor species. The height of the methane burner stack (60 ft [18.3 m]) makes an ideal perch for raptors waiting for these rodents and other prey. The methane burners have an igniter that causes a sudden flame flare that can scorch or even kill anything perched on top, flying over, or located inside the stack (Figures 2 and 3).

Methane gas burns clear so raptors likely wouldn't see the flame.

Typically, closed landfills are low traffic areas, so only a small percentage of burned raptors are rescued. It is believed that most injured die due to starvation or predation after burn injuries have been sustained.

Burner pictured is 12 ft (3.6 m) in diameter and 60 ft (18.3 m) high

            Because the US Fish and Wildlife Service does not maintain statistics on these injuries, a national effort towards remediation is not expected without further hard data. The author has contacted several prominent rehabilitators who are aware of the issue and have received raptors burned by landfill methane burners.  One center indicated it had received red–tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), American kestrels (Falco sparverius), great–horned owls (Bubo virginianus), and red–shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus), all with apparent methane burner inflicted injuries. Rehabilitators in St. Louis, Delaware, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Illinois, Colorado and Oklahoma have confirmed they received burned raptors from landfills.  See Wisconsin state Journal November 17, 2008.  http://www.madison.com/wsj/topstories/314652 for additional information.

            The actual size and scope of the problem is not known, however the author has received photos and data from rehabilitators in  Further, it is unknown if the problem is greater in certain geographical areas, or if only certain types of methane burners or landfills are causing injury to raptors. More research is needed to obtain data and facts to understand the full scope of this issue.

Figure 2 - This red–tailed hawk presented with a right wing burn. Another was received from the same landfill the next day presenting with a left wing burn.

Figure 3 - Singed feathers on a Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)



The author also has rescued red–tailed hawks burned by natural gas fired, electric power generating facilities. See figures 5 and 6 at the end of this article.

“Oil and gas production facilities utilize what are called ‘heater–treaters’ which are used to make and transfer/apply heat to the natural gas that is produced from production wells. In this situation dead birds have been found inside the equipment—it is believed that the birds enter through the stack and other openings on a heat–treater and die because they cannot fly out or are asphyxiated”. (Greg Esslinger, - FWS Region 2 biologist)


The standard protocol is to allow natural molting of damaged feathers. Because of the risk of severe feather follicle damage, feather plucking to accelerate new feather growth should not be a treatment for predator species. Severe feather follicle damage can result in permanent loss of the follicle (Carolina Raptor Center 2008). This means if a raptor that molted last month is admitted for treatment, it will have to stay in care for 11 months before feather re–growth is complete and the bird can be released. In cases seen at the Oklahoma Raptor Center, the author feels the quantity of damaged feathers has been too large for imping1 to be an effective treatment.

1Feather imping, a process developed by falconers, is a technique in which good feathers from one bird (naturally molted or from dead bird) are used to repair damaged feathers of another.


It is hoped that remediation will occur to prevent or lessen occurrences of methane burn injuries to raptor species. Current remedial suggestions are:

  1.  Deny perching by use of stainless steel bird spikes (polycarbonate would burn/melt) and supplying alternative perching attached elsewhere on the stack.
  2.  Deny perching by use of stainless steel bird spikes and supplying alternative perching away from the stack (e.g., a telephone pole2) and taller than the stack, but within 20-30 feet (6-9 m) of the burner stack(see figure 4 below).
  3.  Stack covers (of various designs) that would reduce perching and prevent possible fly–over burning

2 Apparently landfills have a barrier below the surface designed to prevent harmful chemicals from migrating to the surface, so some kind of flashing would likely have to be implemented.  Further there are buried pipes and in some cases electrical lines that may be hard to locate.

Figure 4 -Picture above represents installation of stainless steel bird spikes on rim of burner and affixing a lowered perch rail below the flame area.  Also illustrated, above, is an alternative perch placed on telephone poles that is both higher and away from the burner stack.

The author is requesting the following information from the rehabilitation community. Author contact information is given at end of article.

  1.  Quantity, species, and date/time frame of burned raptors admitted, as well as length of treatment and procedures used (e.g., imped three primary feathers).
  2.  Admission number of any burned raptors that were euthanized, and the ratio of released, non–releasable, and euthanized.
  3.  Geographic area of landfills, and distance the rehabilitator is from any landfill implicated in the injury.
  4.  Photographs of burned birds (or other species) for use as hard evidence.
  5.  Photographs of a variety of landfill methane burners that have been the cause of injury to a bird or bat. Of particular interest would be a dusk photograph of a burner actually flaming.
  6. Photographs and/or description of any remediation observed or implemented, and if it has been successful. Also any problems with a particular remediation attempt.
  7. Any other information that will lead to a better understanding of the issue, as well   as useful statistics or remediation ideas.
  1. Other industrial sources of burned raptors admitted that have undergone treatment.


As wildlife rehabilitators, it is incumbent upon us not only to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife, but also to recognize the great duty and unique position rehabilitators are in to spot trends.  Wildlife rehabilitators can play an important role in remediation by identifying recurring problems and recommending solutions to the proper individuals who can help the animals that cannot help themselves and are negatively impacted.

[Author’s Note:  Please send information or questions via email to: okraptors@hotmail.com. Please include your complete contact information for follow–up.]


Carolina Raptor Center (CRC). 2008. A hawk broke most of its tail feathers. Can it be released? Available from: <http://www.carolinaraptorcenter.org/rescue_faq.php>.

Heimlich, J. E. 2007. Ohio State University Fact Sheet–Landfill CDFS–111. Ohio State University: Columbus, OH. Available from: <http://ohioline.osu.edu/cd-fact/0111.html>.

Noyes, K. 2006. Clean–Up Your Trash. Charity Guide website. Available from: <http://www.charityguide.org/volunteer/fifteen/trash.htm>.


Figure 5 -Electrical Power Generating Plant

Figure 6 -Burned Hawk from Electrical Power Plant


Oklahoma Raptor Center  Copyright 2008