Birds are our fine feathered friends and all that, but as anyone who has ever tried to picnic on the grass in Wascana Centre can tell you, sometimes they’re a darned nuisance.
Sometimes they’re more than a nuisance: sometimes they’re downright pests, eating our crops, and sometimes they’re even hazards, as at airports. Given all that, it’s not surprising that serious research has been carried out into the science of keeping birds away from places where you don’t want them to be. (Antiornithology, perhaps?)
The best way to keep birds out of your field is to cover it with a net. That’s a little hard to do if you own a quarter-section, though. All the other methods of keeping birds away can be broadly divided into two: visual stimuli and acoustic stimuli.
The oldest method of keeping away birds is the human effigy, better known as the scarecrow. Whether the traditional suit of old clothes stuffed with straw hanging on the traditional or (as is often the case these days) an old store mannequin with a faux gun in its hands, the scarecrow is an oldy-but-still-somewhat-effective-goody.
Now computer science students at the University of South Florida have improved on this classic bird-scarer, and made the ghosts of L. Frank Baum and Ray Bolger very happy: they’ve given a scarecrow a brain.
The Erebus Scarecrow’s head is full of sophisticated but relatively inexpensive sensors, cameras and computer components that help it keep predator birds away from fish farm ponds.
Erebus, who as deployed by the students wore a University of South Florida football uniform, detects motion with its built-in sensors, then captures the moving object on video. It uses image-processing software installed on its built-in micro-computer to determine whether the intruder is a threat. If it is, Erebus lets loose a 120-decibel recorded gunshot sound and squirts out high-speed but harmless streams of waters. And then it tattletales, emailing or cell-phoning its operator to report what it has done.
Fish farmers can wear bright orange vests which Erebus recognizes as “friendly” to keep from accidentally triggering the scarecrow’s sound and fury.
Although the students designed Erebus with fish farms in mind because aquaculture is a major industry where they live, Erebus would obviously work just as where wherever there’s a need to keep birds away.
They might want to consider him up in the oil sands country of northeastern Alberta, for instance—although there they need to keep birds away for their sakes, not ours.
There, University of Alberta researchers have been trying to discover the best way to keep birds from landing in the tailing ponds around the oil sands mines. It’s a particular problem in the spring, when most freshwater ponds are still frozen as the migrating birds return, but the tailing ponds are open because they’re full of warm water.
Unfortunately for the birds, its also oily water.
The standard industry method of scaring away birds is by randomly firing cannons (a popular method in many places, as any visitor to the wine country of B.C., the Niagara Peninsula or California can attest). The oil industry also uses scarecrows—er, “stationery human effigies.”
What Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair and her former undergraduate student Rob Ronconi (now a Ph.D. student at the University of Victoria) discovered was that the effectiveness of the cannon can be improved by linking them to a radar system which fires cannon—and activates large peregrine falcon effigies—only when birds approach.
The radar-linked cannon are most effective probably because they only fire when the birds approach, and not all the time—which solves one of the big problems of all visual and audio-based bird deterrents, which is that the birds become habituated to them over time. (They may be bird-brains, but they’re not completely stupid—they soon figure out that the effigies and sounds don’t really pose a threat if they see and hear them all the time.)
In the oil sands over the next decade or so new technology will probably be developed that does not produce tailings ponds. But as long as humans insist on filling enormous fields with enticing bird food year after year, birds will undoubtedly continue to be a problem elsewhere…and people will continue trying to come up with the perfect method of frightening them away.
I do have one question about Erebus, the scarecrow with a brain, though.
Can he dance and carry a tune?