“The Oil Sands’ Bird Deterrent System Works Perfectly,” Doesn’t Work

In 2012, more than 550 migratory birds met their untimely deaths after they encountered “strong winds, freezing rain and poor visibility,” which forced them to land on top of the Ethical Oil Sands. Some of them died after being covered in bitumen-gloop found in tailings ponds. Others, confused by the glint of wet pavement in the dark of the night, died from blunt force trauma.

It’s a perverse outcome of large-scale oil sands industry on the natural environment. Our society is based on infrastructure that is incongruous with natural systems like migration. The number of birds killed per year is a staggering statistic. Environment Canada reported lasts year that “270 million birds are killed in Canada every year from human-related activity.” It was a 9 point list, citing cats, building windows, and even pesticides. It was not a 10 point list, however, which dollars to donuts would include wind turbines that they say currently accounts for nearly 17,000 deaths**. Nor an 11 point list, which may be inching closer to toxic tailings ponds across the country. (Forgive me, I can’t look at a government report lately without seeing some form of agenda-thru-omission)*.

Are we okay with this? The government of Alberta was, and probably you would be, too. It was a freak, early winter storm and an isolated incident; the birds had to land suddenly, and they were unfortunately atop the tailings ponds.  As corrupt-textbook-lesson Allison Redford conceded, “Sometimes, incidents happen…The test is in the integrity of the system that then responds to this circumstance and I think that it’s very important we had independent experts providing evidence on that.”

Ahh, the system, tried, tested and true. Loud bangers and bitu-men (scarecrows dressed in yellow rain jackets, dotted throughout the tailings ponds. Cute, amirite?) designed to interfere scare off migrating birds on their way to nesting grounds in the high north. The Oil Sands have upped their game lately, and it’s not your mama’s bird-of-prey window decal any more; it’s positively military inspired. Lasers dazzle across the tailings ponds at night, while radar tracks birds and adaptive directional speakers blare everything from shotguns to sounds of distress.

It doesn’t work.

The EJ is reporting today that 122 birds have been confirmed dead after landing in the tailings ponds, and it’s making headlines around the globe. But I’m going to call ‘FOWL’ on the excuses being rolled out by the Oil Sands this time around.

A spokesman for Suncor said 120 waterfowl attempted to land on their Mildred Lake tailings pond late Monday. Deterrence systems scared away all but six, said Michael Lawrence. Suncor believes weather and migration patterns may have caused the landings.

“Our deterrence system worked well,” Lawrence said. “Other operators in the region are seeing similar waterfowl activity.”

This flies in the face of logic. Other regions are seeing similar bird deaths, and you say that your deterrence system is working well? That’s real bird brained, along with the reasoning that weather, in this instance EVIL FOG, has been a contributing factor. Fog is not extreme weather, and is actually quite common in the Fort McMurray area, as I can attest to the number of times I’ve been stranded in Fort Chipewyan because planes can’t land. If this fandangled system only works in placid weather, when birds are least likely to land, and fails in normal yet tumultuous weather, when birds are most likely to land, let’s cancel the toast and get back to the drawin’ board, shall we?

It’s no surprise, as I have anonymously interviewed a number of former oil sands workers whose job it was to scour the ponds and discreetly discard bird carcasses, off the record. That was their full time job, obfuscating the Canadian government.

I know I’m coming across as a crass pundit, but I promise that this isn’t me jumping on the bandwagon of yearly isolated incidents. University of Alberta biologist Colleen Cassady St. Clair figures “200,000 birds land on tailings ponds from open-pit mines, despite radar and powerful noise deterrents,” every year. The Oilsands report their own bird landings but with vastly reduced numbers. It’s no surprise, as I have anonymously interviewed a number of former oil sands workers whose job it was to scour the ponds and discreetly discard bird carcasses, off the record. That was their full time job, obfuscating the Canadian government. That said, one has to wonder how complicit they both were in the affair…

Scarecrows float on the surface of the tailings ponds and air cannons are fired frequently in an attempt to keep birds from landing in the toxic sludge.
Photo: Julia Kilpatrick, Pembina Institute.


Migratory birds are protected species, and they are also a food source for indigenous communities in the north. It’s important they are protected both for a healthy environment, to protect Treaty Rights, and to protect Oilsands investors interests when First Nations sue them for breaching said Treaty Rights. All this new technology designed to scare birds away is perhaps blinding us to different ways of thinking, that gigantic tailings ponds which look very inviting from above are, in fact, an intractable problem by design. No reasonable amount of technology or innovation can fix such a flawed foundation. I hope they get fined, and they put some new thought redesigning tailings ponds from the ground up.

*Put a bell on your bloody, murderous cat. We’re all part of this problem.

**This was an obligatory shout out to wind turbines and building windows, which DO kill lots of birds. Bringing up the difference is a popular argument some people sometimes want to discuss instead of tailings ponds, but also a vacuous, stupid one.

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About Michael Tyas

Michael Tyas is the managing editor of One River News. He graduated the University of Manitoba with an honours degree in environmental studies, and is a professional videographer and video trainer. He produced the feature length documentary "One River, Many Relations" in Fort Chipewyan. He continues to work with indigenous communities to share their stories around resource extraction, industrial development, and impacts on traditional territories.
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