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Saving our fair feathered friends from high-tension wires

A mynah, a magpie and a black-collar starling. Ye Seliang keeps the three birds at home and enjoys their company.

"The mynah can speak putonghua (standard spoken Mandarin Chinese) as well as local dialect," says Ye.

However, as a technician maintaining electric transmission cables in Xiamen, an island garden city in southeast China's Fujian Province, Ye has been "fighting" with birds for 17 years.

"I'm glad to see it's now heading for a harmonious end," says 37-year-old Ye, who leads a squad of cable maintenance workers of the Xiamen Electric Power Bureau of the State Grid Corporation of China.

Birds abound in Xiamen have taken over the towering pylons for want of tall trees. They build nests there using twigs, tendrils, cloth or plastic strips, and even fine wires.

"The birds are amazing," says Ye. "They use whatever they can find."

The birds build nests at the intersection of branch-like bars, especially in the dangerous spots just above strings of insulators.

But the wires can cause short circuits and blackouts once they touch the high-tension cables below.

"Birds' lives are also at stake," Ye says.

After he started to work in 1992, Ye had to climb 20 to 50 meters up a pylon to remove nests built at dangerous spots. During March through August each year, the bird mating season, he and his colleague used to drive hundreds of miles a day to find and clear these nests.

"We once removed more than 200 nests in a breeding season," Ye says, "and the daily record was 12."

Ye cannot remember how many nests they had picked and dropped in the 1990s. But he remembers clearly that the pick-and-drop method didn't work. Birds insisted on coming back to the original places to nest.

"We had tried to make friends with birds in the later years," Ye says. Instead of damaging nests, they moved nests to harmless places on pylons.

"But birds were too clever. They refused to live in the new place, and just started to build nests in the same old dangerous spots!" he says.

Various gadgets had also been used to scare birds away from 2000 to 2006. Ye and his team once designed a wind-driven fan with chromium-plated blades that could reflect glaring sunlight, disturbing the birds .

"It worked quite well when there was wind," says Ye, "but when there was no wind, birds were not afraid at all. And it broke down easily, too."

In comparison, an expensive hawk-shaped ultrasonic device seemed more promising.

Equipped with infrared sensor and solar energy, it was able to detect birds five or 10 meters away and trigger the recorded war cry of the hawk and the warning and despair scream of the bird.

"At first, we thought the powerful high-tech device could solve our trouble once and for all," says Ye, "but we were wrong again. Several months later, birds saw through the trick. They came back and even lived right next to the 'hawk'."

Frustrated but undaunted, Ye went back to the method of trying to divert the birds to safe places.

To repel birds, they use a thin galvanized steel plate instead of plastic to make much stronger triangular boxes to cover the critical spots where birds should not nest, in addition to a new kind of bird-resistant umbrella with steel tines.

To attract birds, they install comfortable artificial nests such as bamboo baskets and inverted umbrellas with tinplate ribs in safe spots.

"These devices can be adapted to match different conditions. Some boxes are retractable to facilitate cable maintenance," says Ye, demonstrating their inventions. "We've applied for a patent on them."

Ye and his team have fixed more than 500 sets of these devices on all known critical spots for the last two years, bringing the number of bird-caused electric accidents down to zero. Nearly 80 percent of the 149 artificial nests have served their purpose.

"But the problem is far from over. More birds are going to nest on pylons, and they're sure to bring about new problems," says Ye, referring to the fact that ever accelerating urban expansion and infrastructural construction are ruining more and more natural bird habitats.

Many organizations in Xiamen, both governmental and non-governmental, strive to protect birds. Every October since 1991 is "wildlife protection month" established by the forestry department of Xiamen. Bird photograph exhibitions, as well as bird-protecting knowledge boards, are displayed in residential communities.

The Xiamen Bird Watching Society, a nonprofit organization found in 2002 and made up by volunteers, carries out regular surveys of 290 species of birds and helps to organize Xiamen students' bird-watching activities to arouse young people's interest in and protection awareness about birds.

"Men and birds are all habitants in Xiamen. We should live in harmony, but not in war," says Yan Lu, a member of the society.

As for Ye, he is eager to help birds find safe homes on the 2,000 pylons in Xiamen.

Not long ago, he took a picture in Hongshan Park of four nests piled one upon another on top of a 45-meter pylon in a safe spot.

"It's a four-floor house more than three meters high," he says. "What a cozy home!"


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