Why birds don't get electrocuted when sitting on power lines

If you look up at overhead power lines, it would not be surprising to see birds sitting on the wires. While it is safe for a bird to do so, it is not safe for people to be near overhead power lines. So how can birds sit on a power line unharmed? Let’s look into the “bird on a wire” phenomenon and separate fact from fiction.

Power lines are not insulated

There are many false assumptions on why birds can safely perch on power lines, from specialization in bird anatomy to insulated lines. It is a myth that all power lines are insulated with a protective coating that prevents shocks. Most power lines are actually not insulated. The coating that is on lines is actually for weather proofing and will not offer any protection from the electrical current.

How electricity actually works

To understand why birds are actually able to sit on high-voltage electric lines unharmed requires digging a little deeper into the science of electricity.

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).

How can birds safely sit on power lines?

A bird avoids being electrocuted 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.

Getting near overhead power lines is also a serious hazard for people. So whether you regularly work near power lines on the job or are planning an outdoor project at home, take the time to slow down, look up and stay safe.