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Posted 3/11/2016

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By Brannen Parrish


The staff at Robert S. Kerr Lock and Dam 15 are using a dog to prevent birds from damaging the structure, and creating a hazardous environment for workers.

In October 2015 the staff brought in a border collie named Ellie to protect the structure from pesky fowl.

With its moderate winters, Oklahoma is a near-perfect winter vacation locale for double crested-cormorants and ring-billed gulls. Each year from the end of September to the beginning of April, the structure is besieged by up to 6,000 double-crested cormorants and as many as 3,000 ring-billed gulls.

The staff at R.S. Kerr don’t mind the birds; it’s what they leave behind that is at issue. Fowl discharges contain uric acid, which corrodes metal and damages concrete.

“The average annual cost of repairing components damaged by bird droppings at Robert S. Kerr Lock and Dam 15 is about $10,000.” said Robert Steiner, Navigation Systems Operations Manager for the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It also leaves a nasty mess that creates slippery walkways and potential health hazards.

“It doesn’t take long for the droppings to build up. Sometimes we were cleaning several times a month.” said Wesley Honeysuckle, a lock and dam operator at R.S. Kerr Lock and Dam 15. “You have to spray the droppings with water and then shovel it. It was really getting bad out there.”

Before Ellie was introduced R.S. Kerr Lock and Dam 15 was a destination of choice for the winged tourists. The structure provided a safe vantage point, free from many common predators like foxes, coyotes, cats and raccoons.

Cormorants are fond of fish, while ring-billed gulls are omnivorous and will eat just about anything a human will eat, and many things a human won’t. They are often seen at beaches and parking lots in coastal cities, and can be found scavenging at open dumpsites, and have been known to feed on road kill.

“We estimated about 11,000 pounds of bird excrement on the dam,” said Jeremy Philpot, a lock operator at Lock 15. “It was two inches deep. The walkway was covered with it. The hand rails were covered with it. When it rains and gets wet, the walkway gets slippery. It’s a real safety hazard and it’s nasty.”

In addition to being corrosive, bird droppings can contain histoplasma, a fungus found in bat and bird droppings, which can cause a respiratory disease known as histoplasmosis. The potentially-fatal disease is transferred to humans when the droppings dry out and spores become airborne. It enters the lungs and causes severe infections.

They tried numerous devices to keep the birds off the dam, including metal bird spikes to deter them from landing. Those solutions offered limited success.

“The bird spikes work on the roof of structures but the birds just landed on the walkway, and hand rails,” said Philpot. “We still had the problem with bird poop all over the walkways.”

Noisemaking devices that simulate the sound of a cannon to scare the birds away worked temporarily.

“The noisemakers work for a little while but the birds get used to it when they realize it presents no danger to them, and they just come right back. There is already a lot of noise at a lock and dam anyway, and sometimes they don’t even notice it,” said Philpot. 

The solution? Move up one level on the food chain.

“We figured if we introduced a predator to the area it would scare away the birds,” said Philpot. “Border collies are quiet, so they act like hunters, and present a constant threat. If I introduce a predator it’s just a matter of time before the birds begin to realize this isn’t a safe place for them.”

Considered by many experts to be the most intelligent and trainable of dog breeds, border collies are named for the Border region of England and Scotland, where shepherds carefully bred herding traits into them over hundreds of generations.

The border collie's intense stare or “eye”, which it uses to herd livestock, and its ability to move quickly in a half-crouched walk, similar to that of a cat stalking prey, add to its effectiveness.

Ellie was purchased from Flyaway Farms and Kennels in Chadbourn, N.C. which trains border collies for bird control. She has been carefully trained around people and children for the purpose of clearing birds.

Since Ellie isn’t a retriever, she doesn’t feel the need to catch or return a bird to feel successful, so the breed is capable of clearing protected birds without harming them.

Since border collies are high energy dogs the more Ellie works, the more satisfied she becomes.

“I was skeptical at first about whether a dog would be effective but after three or four weeks of working with her, I was all for it,” said Honeysuckle. “She’s an awesome dog. She does a great job and I’m glad we got her."

One unexpected consequence of bringing in a dog to herd birds?

“She’s definitely made the job a lot more fun,” said Philpot.