By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun
It may be hard to imagine that a 4-pound bird could be responsible for igniting a grass fire or causing a power outage to hundreds of customers.
But it can happen, and it has happened in the Kern River Valley, which is why Southern California Edison is taking some preemptive steps to prevent raptors and other birds from building their nests on the company’s utility poles.
According to Kara Donohue, Avian Protection Specialist with SCE, raptors, such as osprey and other birds, can cause damage to power lines when they build their nest on top of a power pole.
“For example, a raven building a nest on a power pole and using a piece of metal that crosses two of our wires can cause the equipment to create an electrical flash,” Donohue said. “In some cases, this can cause an outage if the wires become damaged or disconnected.”
While osprey can adapt to a number of habitats, they are often seen along the lake shore, as they prefer to nest near a body of water that provides a steady food supply of fish. Commonly referred to as fish hawks, the osprey tends to select freshwater lakes, such as Isabella Lake, for their breeding grounds.
While other animals, including squirrels, possums and rats, can inadvertently cause damage to SCE’s equipment, Donohue said approximately half of their animal-caused electrical outages are caused by birds.
SCE maintains a vast infrastructure throughout their service area, an area that includes urban, rural and remote communities, so the potential for damage caused by nesting birds is system-wide. But the challenges are a bit more prevalent in the more rural areas such as the Kern River Valley.
Osprey aren’t the only birds known to build their nests on SCE’s poles, Donohue said, noting that other species include the American crows, western kingbirds, red-tailed hawks, and the common ravens.
According to Donohue, SCE makes every effort to minimize the impact their equipment has on animals and birds, but they are also taking steps to reduce the impacts that animals have on their equipment.
And when it comes to dealing with an unwelcomed nest, their approach is very specific to the circumstances.
“If the nest is in a location that is not hazardous, then we do not remove it unless we are replacing the structure,” Donohue said. “Additionally, if the nest isn’t posing a potential threat to the equipment, we will leave it in place.”
But if the nest poses an immediate threat, or if it has already caused a power outage, SCE takes a different approach.
“We have a permit through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that allows us to remove the nest and either relocate it to a safer location or take the eggs or chicks to a wildlife rescue to be raised and released,” Donohue said.
While SCE does not have any records of having to remove or relocate active nests in the Kern Valley area, Donohue said that they do remove inactive nests frequently. Inactive nests can be removed without the need for a permit.
Ospreys are protected to the point that SCE crews cannot disturb or remove their nest until it is vacated. That is, unless the nest has caused an outage or threatens SCE’s equipment or poses a threat to the birds themselves.
Such was the case last April, when an osprey nest triggered a small fire that burned the nest and part of the pole along Burlando Road, near the old Kernville cemetery.
According to a Kern Valley Sun news article, an osprey nest caught fire when rain water dripped off nesting material and arced on an SCE pole. While the fire was quickly put out, it created a dilemma for both SCE and the osprey as to what to do with the remaining nest. Volunteers from Sequoia Forest Keepers and staff from Sequoia National Forest stepped in to assist by building and installing a platform near the burned pole to help the osprey re-nest.
The platform was installed and SCE attempted to discourage the birds from using the burned pole by removing the nesting material. But the osprey was not discouraged and found enough room to re-nest and even lay eggs. Concerned for the osprey eggs, SCE placed protective shielding on the live wires to prevent another fire.
Last summer, SCE replaced a pole along Highway 155 with a steel pole equipped with “bird spikes” in an attempt to thwart would-be nest builders. While the bird spikes appear to be intimidating, SCE says there is no guarantee that they will keep osprey or other birds from building their nest.
Donohue said they are testing the bird spikes approach in a few locations to see if it helps. “But often times, birds overcome our deterrents and manage to build nests,” she said. For that reason, SCE is not widely using that particular set up until they can determine if it works.
New and replaced poles are built “avian-safe,” meaning the wires are spaced further apart or covers are used to prevent contact.
Donohue noted that in general, SCE’s Avian Protection Program is their guide to protecting wildlife and avoiding damage to their equipment. The program started in the 1980s and covers reporting avian mortalities, protecting natural habitats while maintaining their equipment, managing nests, and working with a variety of local, state and federal government agencies.
Donohue is a full-time avian protection specialist; however, SCE has other biologists on staff in the Environmental Services Department to help deal with bird protection strategies.
Birds colliding with utility wires or building their nests on poles are not the only culprit responsible for power outages.
Metallic balloons caused a record number of outages last year. Donohue said that those free-floating metallic balloons pose a problem for utilities year-round; however, last June, SCE experienced an all-time, single-month high of 191 outages caused by metallic balloons and were on their way to a third straight year of record balloon outages. While SCE is hoping that the steps they are taking will keep birds safe and the power on, Donohue said that at this time, there are no devices proven to prevent nests from being built on their poles, which limits the steps they can take or try.
“So, our primary focus is to make it safe for birds to occupy our poles or relocate or remove nests when they aren’t safe,” Donohue said.