Why can birds sit on power lines, but I have to stay clear?

Posted on Sep 20 2018 in Fulton County REMC

Greg Bitterling

We talk about it all the time. Stay away from power lines or you may get electrocuted.

But we drive down the road and see birds sitting on them all the time. It’s as if they are looking down at us almost daring us to get a little closer. But don’t fall for it! They do not have super powers, they are not defining the laws of physics, and no, the lines are not insulated. So, how can they do it?

Birds and our bodies are all conductors. But we do not get electrocuted unless we make contact with an energized line and the ground or something in a different potential. Electricity flows by the movement of electrons through conductors. For electrons to move, there must be what we call a difference in electrical potential. Electricity flowing through a single power line at any voltage will continue along the path of least resistance and right past birds because there’s no difference in electrical potential.

However, if the bird touches the ground while sitting on the wire or flaps its wings and touches another electric wire with a different voltage or phase, then the bird would be electrocuted. This is because its body became a path for the electricity to reach either the ground (no voltage) or a place with a different voltage or phase (another wire with a different voltage or phase).

Just like lightning is always going to the ground, electricity does the same. If we have a hot wire and we touch it standing on the ground, the electrons are going to go through our bodies to get to the ground or the different potential that ground offers. Because we are conductors, we will get electrocuted in the process — definitely not a good thing!

This is why we must never touch a downed power line and always stay clear and keep a safe distance from all power lines. If you see a downed power line, always stay clear 30 yards or more. Be aware that the line could make contact with tree limbs, vehicles, puddles, fence, or anything else that is a conductor. There is no way of knowing whether or not that power line is still live. We always have to assume it is hot and treat it like it is. Don’t risk your life on a guess. The odds are not in your favor.

Operators of farm equipment or vehicles must also know what to do if the vehicle comes in contact with a power line. Stay on the equipment, warn others to stay away and call 911. Do not get off the equipment until the utility crew says it is safe to do so.

  • If you are safe in the vehicle, stay in the vehicle. If it is on fire or you are not safe and must exit the vehicle, please follow these steps.
  • Open the door or exit and jump clear of the vehicle.
  • Land with your feet together and make sure you do not touch the vehicle. Remember: If you touch the ground and the vehicle at the same time, electricity will travel through you to the ground. You could get electrocuted.
  • After you have jumped clear from vehicle and landed with your feet together, you must hop to safety with your feet together. If you can’t hop, shuffle away so that the toe of one foot shuffles forward along the length of the other foot, ensuring that both feet are in constant contact and always touching the ground. Hopping or shuffling will keep you in the same potential if any current is going into the ground (just like a bird on a wire).
  • Once you get away from the vehicle, never attempt to get back in or even touch the vehicle until the utility crew says it is safe to do so.

Please follow these rules to stay safe around electricity.

Greg Bitterling
Member Services Manager and
Energy Advisor at Fulton County REMC