How to Keep Birds Off Poisonous Ponds

Photograph by Alex Webb/Magnum Photos

How to Keep Birds Off Poisonous Ponds

Laser technology might succeed where noise-making air cannons have not. 

By Daniel Grossman
Published: July-August 2014

One biologist at the University of Alberta knows what imperiled waterfowl need: a light show. Colleen Cassady St. Clair is testing lasers (a fatter version of the standard speaker's pointer) as a complement to the noisemakers typically used to flush waterfowl from tainted oil sands tailings ponds.

The ponds are nasty stews of byproducts from the extraction process; in just one night in 2008, some 1,600 migrating ducks died after landing on one in Alberta operated by Syncrude Canada.

St. Clair's research has revealed that air cannons don't stop all ducks and geese from landing, even when blasts exceed 155 decibels--louder than a jet at takeoff. In 2013 a team of industry observers tallied more than 12,000 bird landings in 64 tailings ponds on the sites of oil sands mining operations; every pond had a variety of noisemakers in place.

"They habituate to the sound quite readily," explains St. Clair. And given that observers saw only a fraction of the existing ponds, she estimates that the actual number of landings topped 100,000.

She hopes her research might light the way to new systems of deterrence that integrate both visual and audio components. St. Clair sums it up: "We can do a better job."

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Why can;t they just cover the

Why can;t they just cover the ponds? Hopefully they are also lined. A reverse liner that floats and/or mesh coverings. I don;t know how many acres the ponds are, but seems to me some low tech could yield high efficacy. These companies (no company -IMO) should have the right to harm large numbers of birds or any other animal. The whole Tar Sands project is a scourge on the planet.

Of course, the most practical

Of course, the most practical solution would be to not poison our waters and land, period.

That's not practical, that is

That's not practical, that is idealistic. Most of the things we do as a society have an impact on the world around The Oil Sands are a huge impact and are unfortunately showing no signs of slowing down. The development and production are expanding every day.

The practical approach is to mitigate and understand the harmful effects of the oil industry and develop infrastructure for renewable energy sources.

I worked on this research

I worked on this research project last year and spent time in the Oil Sands monitoring migrating birds. The St. Clair lab is amazing at their level headed and intelligent approach to these large, complex issues. The research seeks to identify species and group specific reactions to visual deterrents and focused bursts of laser UV radiation in varying environmental conditions. This is important to finding more effective deterrents than are currently used. But the study is not finished, so waiting for the results and defence of the thesis will take time.

What we do know: The Athabasca river and surrounding areas previous are massively developed and overlap with historical convergence points for birds from all North American migratory flyways. The industry; which provides many jobs to Albertans, Canadians from other provinces,can d immigrants; has a huge impact on the landscape and wildlife populations. Every site (of the dozen or so oil operators) handles the environmental impact differently and some have learned to shape their tailings ponds to not look attractive to flocks by removing vegetation, increasing slope of the shoreline, and placing ponds in former mines a.k.a. in-pit tailings. These designs limit attraction to sites, but don't directly prevent it. Current directed deterrents include loud, wasteful, and ineffective propane canons that birds habituate to (swallows can learn to nest inside them) as well as costly and ineffective Long Range Acoustic Detterents (LRADs) which cost millions, use radar to track incoming birds, and try to scare birds them using random sounds (everything from dog barks and machine guns to Chewbacca howls and Doctor Who's sound of the TARDIS). The loud sounds have no basis in ecological response and is often disruptive to people and wildlife. Directed deterrents like flares from bird hazing teams are effective if done correctly, but can also lead to brush fires and further damage to the landscape.

I wouldn't say this is a

I wouldn't say this is a "large, complex issue". Making sounds doesn't work, so you try something else instead. You record how well it does. Important work, but it seems pretty basic. The number of birds killed in the tailing ponds is minuscule compared to the number killed by cats and building strikes in any case.

It absolutely is a complex

It absolutely is a complex issue. The mass landing of birds (1500 in one night, plus those that were never recovered) was during a bad storm 6 years ago, but it can easily happen again and birds are still being oiled by landing in ponds. Scientifically proving the most effective deterents from an impartial, independent standpoint takes time and, even when proven, the best practices are not easily adopted by the 5 companies who are causing the issue. Most of the companies say "Look we spent millions on these noise machines and radar so we can't change it up now", even though they should. The Canadian government is taking this research (that the court ordered) seriously and there is a lot of effort put in finding a solution and collaboration between industry, academic research, and government. Passing it off as 'miniscule' is sweeping it under the rug and ignoring the fact that this is a solvable issue. They are trying to solve it through determining effective deterents and keeping consistent monitoring practices among the 5 different companies that have tailings ponds..

I suggest that you Google

I suggest that you Google "complex", as there's nothing in your comment that meets the definition.

I suggest you Google

I suggest you Google "complex", as there's nothing in your comment that really meets the definition.

I suggest you Google

I suggest you Google "complex", as there's nothing in your comment that really meets the definition.

I worked on this research

I worked on this research project last year and spent time in the Oil Sands monitoring migrating birds. The St. Clair lab is amazing at their level headed and intelligent approach to these large, complex issues. The research seeks to identify species and group specific reactions to visual deterrents and focused bursts of laser UV radiation in varying environmental conditions. This is important to finding more effective deterrents than are currently used. But the study is not finished, so waiting for the results and defence of the thesis will take time.

What we do know: The Athabasca river and surrounding areas previous are massively developed and overlap with historical convergence points for birds from all North American migratory flyways. The industry; which provides many jobs to Albertans, Canadians from other provinces,can d immigrants; has a huge impact on the landscape and wildlife populations. Every site (of the dozen or so oil operators) handles the environmental impact differently and some have learned to shape their tailings ponds to not look attractive to flocks by removing vegetation, increasing slope of the shoreline, and placing ponds in former mines a.k.a. in-pit tailings. These designs limit attraction to sites, but don't directly prevent it. Current directed deterrents include loud, wasteful, and ineffective propane canons that birds habituate to (swallows can learn to nest inside them) as well as costly and ineffective Long Range Acoustic Detterents (LRADs) which cost millions, use radar to track incoming birds, and try to scare birds them using random sounds (everything from dog barks and machine guns to Chewbacca howls and Doctor Who's sound of the TARDIS). The loud sounds have no basis in ecological response and is often disruptive to people and wildlife. Directed deterrents like flares from bird hazing teams are effective if done correctly, but can also lead to brush fires and further damage to the landscape.

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