“Birds, particularly gulls, are a nuisance at landfill sites. In large numbers, they create a negative image of landfills and scatter litter onto surrounding areas.” —Vancouver Landfill Annual Report 2011, page 22.
“Bird control measures include hawks, monofillament canopy, screecher flares, bangers, propane cannons. Modern bird controls are very effective.” —Highland Valley Centre for Sustainable Solid Waste Management: A Vision for the Future, page 6.
“Ornithologists discourage a rush to judgment. According to an Environment Canada study published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology this fall, bald eagles favor the 10-hectacre Vancouver landfill not for its all-you-can-eat buffet of garbage, but for the shelter it provides from the bitter winter weather blowing in from adjacent Boundary Bay. In fact, the study found that garbage comprised only 10 percent of the birds’ diet and that only two of 11 eagles tagged spent a significant amount of time at the landfill. But the warmth from the decomposing garbage, lack of human activity and the windbreak provided by the surrounding trees make it an irresistible winter retreat, where the eagles spend 91 percent of their time resting, not eating.” –Steven Averett, Land(fill) of the Free, Waste Age
“The food scraps in the waste attract a variety of animals. Highly mobile species, such as seagulls and eagles, can spread bacteria and pathogens from landfills to residential areas. To address this problem, the Vancouver Landfill has introduced a bird control program using raptors: introducing only one hawk can expel thousands of seagulls.” —Waste Solutions for Metro Vancouver 2010, page 11.
Apparently, I am not the only one who noticed the birds at the landfill. If you visit the landfill you can’t help but notice the birds. We aren’t talking about a flock of fifty or a hundred or so. Think thousands and thousands of birds. The vast majority are seagulls, but then there are a whole hell of a lot of eagles, too, and probably a goodly number of other raptors. I didn’t notice any smaller birds, but they would have been hard to see since there were so many big birds.
What I find interesting about the different people I’ve quoted above is that, with the exception of the first quote, they all seem to share a desire prove that the birds aren’t really there feasting on the garbage, or if they are, they are somehow sufficiently deterred by the methods of modern science.
We found it very difficult to capture the overwhelming number of the birds in a picture, so let’s give it a shot with words: From the distance of the highway, it looks like a television channel static of small black things skittering around. Up close it feels like liquid waves of birds ebbing and flowing over the open face, backing off in a great sliding rush when a cannon is set off or something scares them, returning in frothy tumbles moments later, an overloading sense of movement as thousands of birds land, fly, dive, wheel, and duck about.
While we were at the landfill we heard a loud boom which must be the cannon they fire to scare of the birds; we saw them shoot harshly whistling flares across the active face; and we were told that there were also bird control raptors working the area. The birds I saw did not seem overly concerned. Despite the assurances voiced by Steve Averett, the eagles particularly seemed to be indulging in quite a feast. And although the students who wrote Waste Solutions for Metro Vancouver 2010 must have studied their topic extensively, I wonder if the seagulls know that they are supposed to flee in the thousands; it seemed to me that they were not doing their part. “Very effective” is not exactly the term I would use.
I saw eagles sitting in the garbage, chomping away. I saw seagulls in the thousands wallowing like pigs in the garbage. I saw enough birds to inspire Hitchcock to make a sequel.
So what’s up?
George told us that mostly the birds leave during the summer.
“The birds will disappear by May. Or the eagles will. They go back to their homes. They come down for the winter because their food sources have basically dried up for the winter time, right? So they’ll come down and unfortunately as much as we do a bird control program…we keep the seagulls off the face as much as possible but the eagles tend to ignore our hawks and noises and if they see something, they’ll either wait for a seagull to go in and grab it and they’ll follow the seagull and steal it from them or they’ll in fact go into the active face and pull it out. So it’s a food source for them, but by May they’ve returned to their normal areas.”
“The seagulls migrate. They come off Boundary Bay there. There’s an island there where they nest. They’re a migratory bird as well and protected by the Federal Government. So they migrate back and forth. In the summertime you’ll see, it’s hard to tell from here, but there’s quite a number of seagulls there, in the summertime that numbers diminishes down to about a quarter. Because there’s other food sources for them. So rather than being constantly harassed by our bird control people, they’ll just go elsewhere.”
The explanation for why there were so many birds at the landfill despite what everyone seemed to be saying appears to be the time of year that we visited. Margaret and I, as experienced ornithologists, managed to pick the most bird-heavy time of the year.