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All Things Considered

Granite Geek: Ultraviolet Light For A Better Human-Wildlife Relationship (Maybe)

Hadley Paul Garland via Flickr/CC http://ow.ly/C7DIV

Humans can't see ultraviolet light - but many types of wildlife can. And a man in Nashua is researching whether that difference may help humans and wildlife better co-exist in the future.

David Brooks writes the weekly GraniteGeek science column for the Nashua Telegraph and Granite Geek.org.

He says Donald Ronning's idea to use UV light to scare off - or at least warn - wildlife may have a wide variety of uses.

He was talking to somebody a few years ago, and they mentioned about bird and bat strikes for wind farms – the arms of the wind turbines spin and they can hit flying things which aren’t used to having spinning things four hundred feet in the air. And the question is, how do you alert birds and bats to the fact that the arms are there before they fly into them?

That’s the sort of vague idea that leads to a lot of new products and new companies. But he started looking at markets and found that there’s a lot of places where wildlife interact. The Milford Fishery is where he’s doing a series of tests right now, shooting invisible beams, ray beams out over a pond that holds 14,000 rainbow trout. The blue herons and ospreys and other creatures come down to feast, and they would like to scare them off. And so he’s testing it there.

He’s also talked to mussel farmers, of all things, out in Maine, trying to establish the commercial mussel farming industry. And there are ducks that come and feast on the mussels, and so they’d like to scare them away.

So there are a lot of places. Part of the reason he’s doing this testing right now is that he got a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, and that’s triggered largely by the airplane. Bird strikes and airplanes, that’s a very obvious and high-profile and expensive and dangerous event. There’s a lot money going in right now trying to figure out a way to scare away birds without annoying human beings that live right around the airport.

The testing for this would be fairly complicated, because in addition to the range of potential applications, it’s not like you can just take a bunch of osprey into a lab and say “does this light bother you?”

You probably could in some way, maybe, sort of, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the real world. That’s the issue – there’s an enormous number of variables – the company’s still sort of struggling with that. How bright does it need to be? How quickly does it need to be displayed? Do you need to flash it once every five minutes? Should there be motion detectors? And which animals will be affected – which ones won’t? Time of day, direction…

And most of the testing, as he noted and I noted in my column, is of a statistical nature. So, for example, if three osprey came to the pond yesterday and I turned on the light and only two osprey came today, is that because the light was there, or is that just part of the natural variation and fluctuation of the numbers? So you need to gather lots of data over an amount of time, you need to do statistical tests to show they’re legitimate. And then you’ve got other issues like the battery.

And then there’s non-technical but biological issues, of which the big one – and he admits this is a question mark – is habituation. Animals get used to something that doesn’t bother them anymore – that’s why scarecrows don’t really work, because even the dimmest bulb in the animal kingdom realizes that something that’s stuffed with straw inside a shirt and pants isn’t really going to bother them.

Donald Ronning, said of the idea, “We try to make it scary, spooky for them.” We may solve this one problem, but could it create another problem, that being thousands of freaked out birds scattered around New Hampshire’s landscapes, terrified of everything.

I suppose that’s a possibility, but we’re living among thousands of turkeys, which are about as weird and freaked out an animal as you can imagine. I suppose if every bird in the sky acted like turkeys, it would be a little odd, but I think we could handle that.