The Flying Shingle
Just for the Birds
Drilling for oil in the nursery
by Sharon McInnes
Monday, August 6, 2012
Click for larger photo
Bufflehead ducks like the 1,600 that drowned in a Syncrude tailing pond in 2008. ~ Public domain photo by Donna Dewhurst

In Canada’s Boreal Forest 2.5 square kilometres supports up to 500 pairs of breeding migratory birds including Dark-eyed Juncos, Evening Grosbeaks, and Olive-sided Flycatchers. (Have you heard the one singing from our treetops lately?) Unfortunately for the birds, most major oil companies are currently mining and drilling for oil there. Danger in the Nursery: Impact on Birds of Tar Sands Oil Development in Canada’s Boreal Forest, a report by the National Resources Defence Council (2008), estimates that over the next 50 years up to 166 million more birds will be lost as a result of tar sands development – this in addition to the ever-increasing number of species already declining at alarming rates.
Let’s be clear: tar sands are not oil. They are a mixture of 10 per cent bitumen mixed with sand, clay, silt, and water. Bitumen is “what a desperate civilisation mines after it’s depleted its cheap oil” (Tar Sands, Andrew Nikiforuk, 2010). Getting it from its raw state to a state in which it will flow through a pipeline takes a mind-boggling amount of money, a complex network of roads, pipelines, well pads, compressor stations, energy generation facilities, and tailing ponds.
It means the devastation of the forest covering the tar sands along with every living thing that called that forest home. Whether the tar is extracted by open-pit mining using 400-tonne three-storey-high trucks and electric shovels worth $15 million each, or by ‘in situ’ drilling, the result is the same: massive habitat loss and fragmentation, contaminated air and water, loss of huge volumes of water from wetlands, lakes, and rivers, and greenhouse gas emissions triple those of conventional oil drilling.
Global warming is just one of the nasty results. The Boreal Forest, traditionally the planet’s largest storehouse of carbon, ‘the lungs of the planet’, has become one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.
Global warming affects birds in various ways. First, since birds time the beginning of their migration northward to coincide with seasonal changes in daylight (which remain constant, in spite of climate change) they may arrive in their ‘nursery’ to find their traditional food sources (e.g. insects) already hatched and long gone. That means no food to feed the babies. Bye bye birds.
Secondly, some birds hoard food to get through the winter and to have a ready supply for their young in early spring. Warmer temperatures mean they may find their cached food spoiled when they arrive because it has not had a chance to freeze.
Thirdly, Boreal wetlands, the annual breeding grounds for 12 to 14 million ducks, are becoming drier and drier as global warming continues. 
But the global warming exacerbated by the development of the tar sands is just one of the problems birds face. Another is tailing ponds. These are not pastoral ponds à la Walden. Nor any type of tail that may stir up warm and fuzzy feelings. They are, instead, massive toxic soups of bitumen, salts, and poisonous acids combined with water, sand, silt, and clay.
Tailing ponds are deadly for waterfowl.  In 2008, for example, 1,600 ducks, including migrating Buffleheads, landed on a tailing pond owned by Syncrude. They all died. Birds fly over a “pond” and think they see water. So they land, expecting a much needed rest and a good drink. They dive down, hoping to find some tasty morsels. And they never come back up. Non-diving birds that land in tailing ponds are covered in oil. Their feathers lose their insulating properties, and the birds slowly die.  
“Every year the ponds quietly swallow thousands of ducks, geese, and shorebirds as well as moose, deer, and beaver. Although Canada’s Migratory Birds Convention Act says it’s against the law to kill birds by sliming them with bitumen or other toxic waste, shit happens in the tar sands” (Nikiforuk, Tar Sands). According to the Danger In The Nursery report, in 2008 annual bird mortality resulting from tailings ponds ranged from 8,000 to well over 100,000 birds. 
Let’s get over our addiction to oil. Let’s find a new way. For the birds – and ultimately, for all of us that share the planet. 
Sharon is the author of ‘Up Close & Personal: Confessions of a Backyard Birder’ and the Gabriola Bird Blog:

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