This month we asked the federal government to use its power to hold tar sands operators to account when birds die in tailings ponds. Ecojustice spoke with Andrea Johancsik, a conservation specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association about the current state of migratory birds and what must be done to protect them.

Ecojustice: What are some of the biggest threats to migratory birds right now?

Andrea Johancsik: The top threat to migratory birds is habitat loss, but there are additional factors like climate change, collisions with man-made structures, and environmental pollution. A 2012 Report titled State of the Birds found that Canada was doing better than other jurisdictions like the U.S., Central and South America in terms of population trends. However, Canada’s practices are far from perfect. The report also found development caused permanent loss of forest. It listed energy extraction as the biggest concern for conservation in Canada’s boreal region. Habitat damage along any routes used by migratory birds’ route can have negative impacts on populations. That’s why Canada must do its part to protect habitat.

Protecting migratory birds presents unique challenges because their habitat knows no borders. It crosses jurisdictions and countries, and requires inter-boundary cooperation. That’s why the Migratory Birds Convention Act was updated in 1994 in North America. Canada’s federal government has an obligation to protect migratory birds, and through this legislation has the tools to do so as well.

In the spring of 2015, I travelled to Belize, and was surprised to see a regular visitor to Alberta, the red-winged blackbirds, on the fence. It’s a common migratory bird, but it shows up in two regions 6,500 kilometers from each other. It drove home how far these birds have to travel to summer in Alberta and how risky it must be if they arrive to find their habitat transformed into agricultural land, or contaminated with toxins. For humans, the trip to Belize may be a matter of hours, but for a bird, it’s a massive, distant journey with no certainty of a safe place to land.

EJ: Are there specific strategies for protecting these birds? What needs to happen to ensure healthy populations are sustained?

AJ: Right now, tailings ponds cover more than 220km2. By 2008, there were 42 per cent more surfaces covered in tailings than there were natural water bodies in the oil sands minable region. Birds land on tailings ponds, mistaking them for wetlands or lakes, especially in the spring when tailings ponds are open while natural water bodies are still frozen.
There are currently auditory and visual deterrents being used to discourage birds from landing on tailings ponds. Most often, loud random noise is used, and visual deterrents might come in the form of scarecrows or artificial light. Some research has been done to improve the effectiveness of these deterrents, but deterrents are a short-term fix for a long-term, if not permanent, problem. Tailings ponds have been said to be the oil sands’ greatest threat – probably because the ponds were built with the expectation that technology would catch up. That technology still hasn’t come.

The other obstacle is governmental failure to enforce legislation that would hold oil sands operators to account for bird deaths. Currently, they’re not using their full power under the Migratory Birds Convention Act. It continues to approve activities that are known to have significant effects on migratory birds. We’re asking for an investigation into the ways the government has failed to mitigate impacts of tailings ponds on migratory birds.

The inquiry must look into the impacts of birds that land on ponds and fly away – how often does this cause injury, disorder or death? Do birds spread contaminants to the environment when they leave the area? We believe an investigation will spur the government to start answering these questions and act on their responsibility to protect migratory birds.

These birds need the federal government’s help to ensure that they have safe passage during their seasonal treks. That means removing floating bitumen and bird attractants from existing ponds and reducing the use of harmful, ineffective deterrents – especially those creating chronic noise pollution.

tar sands by kris krüg

Photo by Kris Krüg

Of course, we support efforts to use deterrents wisely and remove attractants and floating bitumen, but it’s crucial to focus on stronger regulations to remove legacy tailings. For decades, operators have promised that they’ll remove tailings ponds, yet the ponds still scar the landscape today.

Another method to protect migratory birds is to set aside protected areas and parks, for example, areas of high importance like the McClelland Lake wetland complex (85km north of Fort McMurray). It would not only protect migratory birds like whooping and sandhill cranes that use the area, but would preserve habitat for rare plants, buffer impacts of climate change such as drought and fire, and provide secure water supply and filtration, all essential ecosystem services that nature provides us for free.

Photo by Anthony Rue

Photo by Anthony Rue

EJ: What happens to birds when they land in tailings ponds?

AJ: Tailings ponds tend to be harmful because their contents are toxic – salts, bitumen, or PACs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – also a human carcinogen). We tend to visualize birds coated in oil, and certainly bitumen can coat feathers and make it difficult for birds to fly, float, or keep insulated. It can also be toxic to their eggs.

Most of the time though, we don’t really know what happens to birds because unfortunately the effects are under-studied. There are documented mortalities that reach the hundreds to thousands, but there are also as many as 200,000 birds per year that come into contact and survive. We don’t know with certainty what effect contact with tailings pond has on those birds. It’s possible that come in contact with the ponds, fly off and die later, or they could have future reproductive and behavioral problems.

A lack of informative scientific information on these brief landings has fueled an assumption that the ponds are not harmful for birds. A recent master’s thesis found that ‘mature process-affected water’ is less dangerous for birds than ponds containing visible bitumen and fresh tailings, but the work points to a need for more studies. This type of uncertainty is common in science, but when it leads to inaction or lack of precaution, it can be dangerous. The long-term, cumulative impact of toxins transferred from ponds to birds to the environment is still becoming apparent.

EJ: What importance do migratory birds have for our ecosystems and planetary health?

AJ: The northern boreal is considered a ‘nursery’ for birds, some of which migrate as far as Mexico or coastal habitats. The Peace-Athabasca delta is hugely important for waterfowl and over 200 bird species. The 2016 State of North America’s birds report concluded that one-third of North American bird species need urgent conservation action. Because migratory birds travel so far, compromised habitat along any part of their flight path can interfere with the ecosystems along their whole range – a bit like the ‘butterfly’ or ‘domino’ effect. Preserving this habitat means valuing wilderness and wildlife for future generations so that migratory species maintain healthy populations.

EJ: What can people do to help?

AJ: Part of the problem is the federal government’s failure to use the Migratory Birds Convention Act to protect birds. We’re asking the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to examine the government’s inaction on migratory bird deaths.


Ecojustice is a Canadian charity that goes to court to enforce and strengthen Canada’s environmental laws on behalf of people and the planet.

Alberta Wilderness Association is a non-profit charity that is dedicated to the completion of a network of protected areas and wilderness conservation.