While it is safe for a bird to sit on an overhead power line, it is not safe for people to be near overhead power lines. So how can birds sit on a power line unharmed? Safe Electricity reveals insights into the “bird on a wire” phenomenon and separates fact from fiction.

In order for an electrical charge, or electrons, to move from one spot to another, it must be in contact (or sometimes close proximity) with conductive material that has at least two different points of potential. Electrons will move toward lower potential. That is why it is said that electricity is always looking for a path to ground (lower potential).

A bird remains safe because it is sitting on a single wire and is at one point of contact—and consequently one electrical potential. If the bird sitting at this one potential was to also make contact with another object of different potential, that bird would be completing a path to ground, causing severe electric shock or electrocution. For larger birds with wider wingspans, reaching and touching another cable is a real hazard.

Being in close proximity to overhead power lines is also a serious hazard for people. The utility professionals who work near overhead power lines must wear appropriate safety clothing, use tested safety equipment, and take training to be able to do the installation, maintenance and repair work they do. It is vital that safety equipment is regularly tested as even non-conductive materials, such as rubber, wood or plastic can conduct electricity if damp, dirty or damaged.

It is a myth that all power lines are insulated with a protective coating that prevents shocks. Most power lines are not insulated. The coating on lines is for weather proofing and will not offer any protection from the electrical current.

Safe Electricity urges people to be aware of their surroundings and shares the following safety tips:

  • Always look up and look out for overhead power lines.
  • Keep yourself and any equipment at least 10 feet away from power lines.
  • Remember that getting too close to a power line, even without touching it, is very dangerous.
  • Avoid working directly under power lines.
  • When working with tall equipment such as ladders, poles or antennas, carry them in a horizontal position as to not risk making contact with overhead lines.
  • Always assume that power lines, even if they have come down, carry an electrical charge.

To learn more about electrical safety, visit SafeElectricity.org.

Photo courtesy of Maurice Shallow