Why can birds safely sit on power lines?

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56496189 – the crow which stops on an electric wire
56496189 - the crow which stops on an electric wire

Their feathered bodies balance perfectly on the power lines along our roads. But how do birds safely sit on those wires?

It all comes down to the way they are sitting.

Electrical current is the movement of electrons. Simply put, electrical current wants to move down to the ground to close the loop. This loop began at the power plant where the electricity was generated. A closed loop must be present for electricity to flow.

One factor that moves these electrons is a difference in electrical potential. When a bird sits on a wire with both feet, the feet are at the same electrical potential, so electrons don’t need to travel through the bird’s body. No moving electrons means no electrical current.

However, if that same bird stretches out its wing, or touches its leg to a second wire on a different electrical potential, the electrons will have a path on which to move through the bird’s body. It will be electrocuted.

The same principle applies to humans. If we were to touch a wire while standing on the ground or on a grounded base the electrons would have a path to move through our body and into the ground.

OPPD crews must sometimes work around energized lines. To protect themselves from the current, they wear thick rubber gloves and sleeves that don’t conduct electricity.

Laura King-Homan

About Laura King-Homan

Laura King-Homan is the managing editor of The Wire and a communications specialist at the Omaha Public Power District. She has nearly 20 years of print journalism and design experience, including the Omaha World-Herald.

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