Falcon decoys and simulated rifle fire keep birds from oil

A fake peregrine and a radar-activated cannon work better at keeping birds away from oil sands tailings than the current system, says new research from the University of Alberta.

Oil sands mining is one of several industrial activities that produces waste dangerous to waterfowl. The birds, such as ducks, geese and swans, are attracted to freshwater ponds for foraging, roosting and nesting, and as stopover sites during migration. Spring migration is a particular problem in north-eastern Alberta, when the warm-water waste forms tailing ponds from oil sands mines are the only open water--the natural bodies are still frozen. When waterfowl land in these ponds, they may ingest oil and their plumage may become oiled with waste bitumen, potentially preventing birds from flying or leading to lost insulation and death from hypothermia. Current deterrents being used are not always successful because wildlife either ignore the stimuli or habituate to them.

Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair and her former undergraduate student, Rob Ronconi (now a Ph.D student at the University of Victoria), compared the industry standard--randomly firing cannons and stationary human effigies--to a radar-activated system which fires cannons and also activates large peregrine falcon effigies only when birds approach. The radar detects the birds and relays the information to a computer that automatically deploys the deterrents. Ronconi led the fieldwork and observed almost 8000 birds during the experiment, which took place in northern Alberta near Fort McMurray. The research has just been published in the "Journal of Applied Ecology."

They found the radar system more effective at deterring birds from landing and then later learned the cannons were even more effective than the peregrines. Part of the reason, says St. Clair may be that the birds are less likely to habituate to the cannons because they are not fired all the time but only when the birds approach. The radar system is currently being used by Albian Sands, Energy.

"This system could be helpful in deterring birds from industrial ponds and we have suggested some potential applications to oil spills at sea," said St. Clair, who is from the Faculty of Science. "In the oilsands, several hundred birds are probably oiled each year and that number might reach into the thousands in some spring conditions."

The system was also able to detect four times as many birds as visual sightings and could also detect the animals at night--particularly critical for bird deterrence because shorebirds, ducks and geese are nocturnal as well as diurnal migrants. But although the research shows promise for radar-activated on-demand deterrents, bird deterrence is not the long-term solution, says St. Clair. In addition to deterrence, the oil sands industry is committed to the reclamation of mines and tailings ponds post production and is also developing processes that will negate the need for hazardous ponds. "The problem will be reduced in time as the oilsands move to technologies that do not produce tailings ponds but that technology is likely to be at least 10 years away," said St. Clair. "In the meantime, on-demand cannon deterrent systems offer the potential of better avian deterrence at industrial sites."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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