Eagles and ravens don’t eat wings, apparently – and that’s made counting the carnage in Alberta’s latest duck disaster all too easy.
Dozens of dismembered mallard wings are all that greeted retired forest scientist David McIntyre as he investigated reports of a mass bird kill just north of Pincher Creek.
There, beside a newly-built power transmission line, McIntyre found an ongoing banquet for local avian scavengers, including seven eagles, a dozen ravens and a hawk – all of them gorging on dead ducks, scattered beneath the wires.
They eat the duck, and leave the wings behind.
“It appears obvious that the line’s placement, directly between a key waterfowl staging area and adjacent grain fields, couldn’t have been planned more effectively if killing waterfowl had been its primary objective,” said McIntyre, a well-known environmentalist in the area.
“The biggest thing to me in all of this, is how in the world was such an obvious threat allowed to take place?”
The trail of leftover wings, some fresh and others dating back over what McIntyre calls “a protracted period of time,” adds up to hundreds of dead birds – the majority of them mallard ducks, though he counted a Canada goose and a gray partridge among the corpses.
Calling it “an avian slaughterhouse”, McIntyre says the under-construction transmission lines – owned by AltaLink – are in the flight path of thousands of birds using the Oldman River and Oldman Reservoir, and waterfowl apparently collide with the wires on a regular basis.
“This appears to be a big problem – something that is not a one-time deal, and I believe it will be an ongoing killer so long as it’s in place,” said McIntyre.
“In a case like this, we could decimate or wipe out some species.”
In a province where past energy industry bird kills have resulted in massive fines and scathing indictments, an ongoing duck demise could add up to an environmental crisis for Calgary-based AltaLink, which supplies power to 85% of Albertans.
In 2012, oil-firm Syncrude was hammered with $3 million in fines for the deaths of 1,600 ducks that died in a tailings ponds near Fort McMurray in 2008, after the company was charged under federal and provincial laws for failing to keep the birds away.
And in recent years, the impact of wind turbines on bat populations in southern Alberta has led the province to establish new rules to protect flying mammals, believed to be fatally wounded both by spinning blades and changes in wind pressure.
Dead birds and bats are serious business in Alberta, and this is no different.
Officers with Alberta Fish And Wildlife have visited the scene near Pincher Creek to ensure nothing criminal is involved, including possible poaching.
With that ruled out, the case has been passed over to Alberta Sustainable Resource Development for investigation.
But the province may be following AltaLink’s own team.
Company spokesman Scott Schreiner says the company makes bird safety a priority, and the report by McIntyre will be immediately investigated.
“We found out about this incident and (Wednesday) morning we dispatched a team to walk the line and find out what’s going on,” said Schreiner.
Transmission line deaths have been an ongoing issue across North America, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducting a three-year study last decade on how to prevent kills, including keeping the lines away from sensitive areas.
It may be too late to keep this badly-needed transmission line away from Alberta’s birds, but Schreiner says AltaLink does try to avoid such impacts.
“It’s always a concern and we were the first transmission company in Canada to develop an avian protection plan to reduce the potential of bird collisions,” he said.
While they can’t completely stop birds from dying, Schreiner says using tools like bird diverters – shiny plates hung from the power lines – do help.
“We do take it seriously, but with any aerial facility – whether it’s a transmission line or cell tower or skyscraper – there are bird contacts and some of those are unavoidable,” he said.
“What we try to do is mitigate it.”
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