For years the American crow has been an unmanaged pest in society. They are some of the smartest animals on the planet, and have adapted to thrive in urban environments. While they have mostly used their intellect to collect waste food in cities and suburbs, they have also threatened endangered species of birds by eating their eggs and offspring. Unfortunately, the best management practice to date has been to kill the crows. There have been attempts to control the crows using non-lethal methods and technologies, but they have been ineffective, until now. One product that has taken my breath away is TernTech: a new crow management technology developed at Loyola Marymount University. TernTech has captured my fasciation because of its nearly 100% efficacy in protecting an endangered shorebird site in Los Angeles. If successful on a larger scale, this technology could have widespread conservation impacts. It may be the type of technology required to protect endangered species of birds and other animals across the globe.
Every year in May a small shorebird called the California least tern returns to a special nesting site on Venice Beach. They come from unknown places and for unknown reasons to nest and rear the next generation of terns in the same sands where they were most likely born themselves. They have been nesting every year at Venice Beach unabatedly since records began in 1894. It wasn’t until 1977, however, that the nesting site was fenced to minimize human interference in the area. This was driven partly by the bird’s relatively new status as a federally endangered species in 1970. The fenced area has since remained the same nesting site for the terns.
As the Marina Del Rey area surrounding the site became more developed and populated, it also brought along with it corresponding increases in human traffic and waste. Though the terns were mostly protected from human traffic, they were not protected from the critters that came with the increased food waste and shelter. A whole new problem and externality arose from the development and that externality came primarily in the form of the notorious American crow.
The crows’ diet ranges from insects to seeds to eggs, so naturally the crows were inclined to prey on the terns’ eggs. They were first noted as a tern egg predator in 1983, but it was not until 1999 that the tern colony hit an inflection point. For the first time in the site’s recorded history the crows ate the entire colony of tern eggs. None survived. The same result then followed again in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2008 through 2013. There was cause for alarm by the local Audubon Society and conservationists in the area who had long volunteered to help care and maintain the nesting site. The terns were dying. With decreasing numbers of adult terns and nesting densities, the colony was slowly loosing its fighting power, and was growing more susceptible to crow predation.
Local groups responded promptly with predator management systems, such as baiting and trapping the crows, but it worked to no avail. The crows returned shortly after being captured, or had competing factions take control of the territory. A new solution was necessary, one that hit the root problem
Although it was proposed, the solution was most definitely not exterminating crows in the area. Everyone knew there were better, more humane solutions for the long-term. The solution had to be smart, scalable, and not depend on volunteers to show up on the weekends. The solution was not policy but rather technology, and one I was fortunate to be able to co-develop with a team from my alma mater, Loyola Marymount University (LMU). It is now an upcoming conservation product called TernTech that could save millions of dollars in outdated predation management systems, and potentially help protect endangered species of birds everywhere. It is a product I hold close to heart and a product that I will always remember for how it took my breath away the first time it work successfully.
The thinking behind the technology is simple: if we want to stop the crows from eating the eggs, how do we train them to do so? If we can train them to not eat the eggs then the biggest burden on the terns’ survival is removed. But how do you train a large number of crows to stop eating tern eggs?
In 2013, Ryan Ecological Consulting teamed up with bird expert Dr. Peter Auger at LMU and the LA Audubon Society to test one approach that had showed some promise in research elsewhere. Leading up to the nesting season the team deployed quail eggs infused with Methiocarb—a non-lethal emetic—to fool the crows into thinking that the eggs were undesirable. It was a form of taste aversion. When the May nesting season began, however, the crows were quick to return to their old ways, and they consumed all the tern eggs that year. None survived.
Though the taste aversion tactic failed to work, the logic behind it still remained compelling. In 2014 the team began to ideate other approaches that used the same logic of conditioning the crows to not eat the eggs. This time they recruited eager students like myself through an Environmental Studies Capstone class to provide more physical and creative man-hours to the solution process. As an engineering student, I was assigned to the technology team to devise a solution.
We thought of the possibility of deterring the crows by shocking them with a non-lethal electric current. It was potentially problematic with animal welfare groups, but our worries subsided after doing some research on electric shock-based pest management systems. These systems are ubiquitous and wouldn’t harm the crows at the right amperage. I started to work on designing a simple system that would make the idea a reality.
Using just copper wire, a wooden stake, quail eggs, steel wool, and a battery-powered electric fence shocking pack (one used for small animals like rabbits), we rigged up a system that would deliver a shock to any critter that bit the bait. Initially we were concerned that multiple variables would impede the system from working, like the shell being too thick or the crow’s beak not being conductive, so we had some doubts going into field-testing.
After a few rounds of trial and error, we finally reached a working proof of concept. On a video clip stamped April 10th, we saw a crow circle the egg, bite it, and jump back in surprise. It was the video we had been waiting a long time to see. We urgently enlisted the other technology team students to help build and deploy more units. We were running out of time because it was already mid-April and in only a few weeks the terns would be returning for the 2014 nesting season. We rushed to deploy the systems throughout the area, hoping that in a few weeks time they would effectively condition the crows to not eat the terns’ eggs.
To make the conditioning even more effective, we enlisted our partner—Ryan Ecological Consulting—to seek permission from the Wildlife Service to use a few tern eggs as decoys instead of quail eggs. These eggs are extremely difficult to obtain since the bird have a federally endangered status, but we ended up getting several dozen to use as proper decoys.
For the first time in decades, the 2014 nesting season resulted in nearly all the tern eggs and fledglings surviving. We had produced something that had solved the crow problem like never before. The technology, which we called TernTech, was heralded and applauded by several groups as a viable long-term solution to crow predation of tern eggs at Venice Beach, and the success had us start thinking about commercialization potential and market opportunities. After all, the solution’s scope was not only limited to the terns at Venice Beach—a comprehensive and well-designed product could help protect countless numbers of endangered species of birds and other animals across the country and the world.
The market opportunity to protect endangered species of animals is massive. Since the signing of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, all species of plant and animal wildlife in the U.S. have been identified as species of important “esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.” As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have been granted the authority to take measures to protect certain segments of wildlife that have been classified as “endangered” or “threatened.” Billions of dollars are being spent on wildlife conservation so the market for our technology is incredible.
Birds require the highest costs for conservation out of all animal species. They make up about 7.65% of all threatened species on the global IUCN Red List, and have about 1/8th of their species considered as endangered, threatened, or vulnerable. A 2012 study in Science estimates that protecting and effectively managing all terrestrial sites of global avian conservation significance (11,731 Important Bird Areas) would cost US$65.1 billion annually. This is 4.2 times larger than the median cost of conservation for other taxa. And in the United States, the federal and state governments spent just more than $1.7 billion to conserve endangered and threatened species under the ESA in fiscal year 2013. This number is only expected to rise as extinction rates across the globe accelerate due to climate change and other related factors.
Out of the FY ’13 ESA budget, $336,540 went to protecting the California least tern. This means that by protecting the terns’ eggs and the eggs of many other birds, we could enter and capture a billion dollar market opportunity in the United States. Furthermore, it is a market that we could easily penetrate with a simple and scalable technology solution like TernTech, which offers a cost effective alternative to outdated predation management systems.
By protecting the endangered least terns at the Venice Beach colony, our technology is one of many trying to address the significant challenges we are imposing on our natural environment. Through hard work and technology designed for scale, we are trying to prove that we can and should protect the natural world, and can do so in non-lethal and effective ways. Thousands of follow-on sites exist for us to sell TernTech, so the number of markets to capture is endless. In the near term, however, what we hope to capture is the breath and fascination of the public. TernTech took our breath away when it finally worked because it signaled that the California least terns, and possibly thousands of other species across the world, may actually have a chance at survival. We want others to feel this same inspiration and know they can also make a difference on the natural environment. If TernTech takes their breath away like it did ours, and the lucky American crows of Venice Beach, then we know we are making a positive impact on our community.