Balancing bird conservation and economic development

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Ahead of our upcoming symposium: 'Bird behaviour in a changing world', Dr John Swaddle from the College of William & Mary, Virginia, USA, explores the challenges involved in bird conservation in a world of tall buildings, communication towers, and wind turbines. 

Zebra finches
We tested our 'acoustic lighthouse' concept with zebra finches

I grew up with a fascination for wildlife and birds in particular. Like millions of people worldwide I want to protect our feathered friends, but we have to admit that some birds cause problems. 

At farms we know that birds can decimate crops. At airports, birds and planes are a dangerous combination. 

In addition, we know that human development of the landscape threatens birds. For example, perhaps a billion birds die each year when they collide with buildings, communication towers, and wind turbines. 

Given our desires for ever-increasing standards of living, we need to find a better balance between sustaining and protecting bird populations while encouraging economic development. 

For the past few years I’ve been trying to see (and hear) these issues from the birds’ point of view and use our collective knowledge of how birds experience their world to reduce conflict between birds and humans.

In particular, we have developed a couple of sound technologies that can help keep birds away from sensitive areas (such as farms and airports) and also reduce their risk of flying in to building and turbines. 

For the former, we have learned that if we use sound to form a “sonic net” we can mask birds’ hearing and they find the area too scary to occupy. They leave and don’t come back. Using highly directional speakers we can fill a specific area, such as the end of an airport runway, with masking sound and greatly reduce the presence of birds in that target area without introducing extraneous noise pollution.

To reduce the risk of in-flight collision with buildings and wind turbines, we are using conspicuous sound to grab the attention of birds. When birds fly during migration their line of sight is largely directed to the ground and out to the side, because their eyes are positioned toward the sides of their skulls. Hence, they are not really looking where they are going. This is akin to someone texting while driving. 

Attention is not where it should be. By using a novel and conspicuous sound field projected out in front of a structure (such as a building) we can grab the attention of the birds and substantially reduce the risk of collision. The sound field acts as an “acoustic lighthouse” warning birds of impending danger.

There are other ways we can use “avian sensory ecology” to understand the world from the birds’ point of view and reach more useful and sustainable solutions for conservation. Mine are just two examples. I am excited to hear the other presenters as I am confident other solutions will emerge from Bird Sense 2017.

  • Bird Sense 2017 takes place at ZSL on 14th and 15th September. It brings together a distinguished list of international researchers to explore how birds perceive the varying landscapes in which they live, and how we might tackle challenges faced in welfare, conservation, and from anthropogenic change.

Register now for Bird Sense 

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