Tar Sands Development Is Killing Birds, New Study Finds

Whooping cranes depend on Canada’s boreal forests for breeding grounds. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Whooping cranes depend on Canada’s boreal forests for breeding grounds. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Canada’s boreal forest is a key nursery for migratory birds, but tar sands development is destroying habitat and killing the birds that depend on it, according to a new report.

The report, published by the National Wildlife Federation and Natural Resources Council of Maine, outlines the risks Canadian tar sands development poses to migratory birds. More than 292 species of protected birds rely on the boreal forest for breeding habitat, including the endangered whooping crane, and at least 130 of those are threatened by tar sands development.

In all, according to the report, 22 million to 170 million birds use the boreal forest region as a breeding grounds, and that tar sands development’s impact on the region has resulted in the loss of 58,000 to 402,000 birds.

Tailings ponds, which store the mix of water, sand, clay, residual oil and numerous toxic contaminants that are produced in tar sands operations, can be deadly for waterfowl, which land on the ponds after mistaking them for bodies of water. As the report notes, when the birds land on these ponds, the oily wastewater weighs them down, making them unable to fly, and toxins can be absorbed through their skin or through inhalation or ingestion.

Last month, a study found that about 200,000 birds land each year on tailings ponds, pointing to the need for oil companies to adopt better ways to keep birds off of the ponds. Right now, companies use noise cannons, high-power noise machines and scarecrows to try to scare birds away from the ponds, but these techniques aren’t doing enough to ensure the birds avoid the ponds. Luckily, though, most of the landings over the last few years haven’t been deadly.

“The downside is birds are landing on the tailings ponds and we have an obligation to find out what the effect is on those birds, as they belong to all North America,” lead researcher Colleen Cassady St. Clair told the Edmonton Journal. “On the upside, most of the birds landing on process-affected water are not hurt, so we need to adjust deterrence and concentrate on keeping them off the bitumen areas.”

That hasn’t always been the case though. More than 550 birds had to be put down after an early winter storm forced them to land on tailings ponds in northern Alberta in 2010, an event that resulted in no charges for the oil company in charge of the ponds. And in 2008, 1,606 migratory birds died in a tailings pond, a death count the company originally estimated at 500.

The NWF report also touched on tar sands development’s contribution to climate change, a problem that’s making life difficult for a variety of bird species. Earlier springs, or springs that start and stop, getting warm for a few days and then dipping down into freezing temperatures, are resulting in mismatches in timing for migratory birds, many of which depend on certain triggers — usually changes in daylight or weather, depending on the species — to know when to migrate. Migratory birds depend on food being available when they reach their final destination, but earlier bud bursts or boughts of cold weather that kill of newly-hatched insects make it difficult for the birds to find food and gain strength for the breeding season. And other kinds of birds , from falcons to penguins, have also been suffering from climate change-exacerbated extreme weather.

Continuing to develop and burn tar sands oil will only exacerbate this problem, the report warns. “In order to provide wildlife and future generations a safe and healthy future, we need to end our addiction to oil,” the report reads. “Tar sands is a bad bet for wildlife, and one we don’t need to take.”