How to Keep Birds Off Poisonous Ponds

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

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.”