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Studying hawks, owls and songbirds near our conventional oil and gas operations

Janet Ng, one of the researchers, studying birds near our conventional oil and gas operations.

December 2016 – The vast landscape of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan is home to a wide variety of wildlife. This includes federally protected birds such as burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks and various songbirds, which are attracted to the abundant grass and crop lands in the area in spring and summer. Because this region is also home to Cenovus’s conventional oil and natural gas operations, we’ve been a longtime supporter of academic research on the habits of these birds.

“Researchers were interested in finding out how the birds are affected by human infrastructure,” says Liz Swift, Cenovus Senior Environmental Advisor. “We wanted to know this too, so that, as part of our commitment to the environment, we could use the information to help minimize the impact of our operations on them.”

While the full results of the research aren’t in yet, here’s a snapshot of some of the preliminary findings:

Ferruginous hawks

Some facilities, including well sites and related infrastructure, don’t really deter ferruginous hawks from nesting nearby, despite some of the inherent risks associated with things like power lines and vehicle traffic, according to Janet Ng from the University of Alberta. In fact, hawks often perch on top of the fences around our infrastructure, scanning for prey in a landscape where trees are scarce.

Vesper sparrow

Cattle tend to cluster around gas wells located in pastures, the research by Nicola Koper of the University of Manitoba showed. They will flatten the vegetation, which attracts birds like the vesper sparrow. The vesper sparrow and the western meadowlark also like to perch on well fences while singing. Nicola found that while many songbirds seem to have no problems rearing their young near natural gas wells, they may have a lower success rate near some types of oil-well infrastructure.

Burrowing owls

Burrowing owls also perch on fences during the day and can even tolerate noisy compressor stations while hunting at night, according to the University of Alberta’s Corey Scobie. However, during daytime the owls tend to stay away from roads with vehicles travelling faster than 80 km/h, as the associated noise may interfere with communication with their young.

“While we already use comprehensive wildlife mitigation measures at our operating areas, this research gives us a better idea of how our presence on the landscape may affect birds – positively and negatively – so we can further adapt our infrastructure to reduce risk,” says Liz. “So it really helps everyone - industry, regulators and especially the birds.”

Financing the research

Besides funding from other parties, Janet Ng, Nicola Koper and Corey Scobie have received more than $1 million combined from Cenovus over the years. While we helped fund their projects, we have no input on the design of the research or how the results are presented.

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