A Laser Fence Is Being Built to Stop Hawaii's Endangered Birds From Crashing

These birds just want some squid, man.

Image: KIUC

While a laser at the wrong time can make a flying human crash, a Hawaiian utility company is trying to use highly-concentrated light to keep birds from crashing.

With the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Hawaiʻi Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the Kauaʻi Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) is experimenting with using lasers attached to transmission poles to keep birds from hitting the poles and electrical lines.

While the avian aversion to lasers is well-known, according to KIUC's transmission and distribution manager, and head of the utility's conservation efforts, Carey Koide, the program is a first of its kind.

“As far as we know, this is the first time anywhere that lasers have been used to create a ‘fence’ for the birds,” Koide said in a press release. “The purpose of this research is to learn more about the birds and their patterns of activity so we can come up with ways to minimize potential hazards and do it in a cost-effective way.”

The first step is attaching 30 lasers to poles near Kaua'i, then testing out different colors and seeing if any reduce the number of injured or dead seabirds found nearby. KIUC specifically mentioned the endangered Newell's shearwater and Hawaiian petrel as birds that are “especially vulnerable to death or injury from collisions with utility equipment because they fly in and out to sea at night and in the early morning and are at greatest risk during a new moon phase when the skies are darkest.”

Newell's shearwater chick. Image: Fws.gov

The Newell's shearwater was once abundant on all main Hawaiian islands, but range has narrowed to mostly the mountains on Kaua'i. As ground-nesting seabirds, both the shearwater and Hawaiian Petrel populations took a huge hit with the introduction of the mongoose, cat, and rats. According to the Pacific Fish and Wildlife Service, the shearwater was in danger of extinction as far back as the 1930s.

Feral cat about to enter a Hawaiian petrel den and eat a chick inside. Taken by remote camera. Image: FWS.gov

Beyond just utility poles, fledgling shearwaters are actually attracted to light. The non-laser lights of hotels, highways, and athletic fields are at least partially to blame for the 30,000 shearwaters that island residents have found between 1978 and 2007.

Lasers are an attractive solution, if they work. They're cheaper than burying all the power lines, and have been found safe enough to get qualified endorsement as a bird deterant from the Humane Society of the United States as well as the British Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Birds are startled but not harmed by the disparity between the laser beam and the ambient light, and as the lasers are level, they shouldn't be a problem for either pilots or other island residents.

There's also a certain appeal to the notion that “artificial light got us into this; and it can get us out.” You certainly don't see the cats and rats stepping forward to help, anyway.