Sipping for Sakers: Interview with Rick Harness on Saker Falcon Conservation

The following is an interview with Rick Harness who is spearheading efforts to save Saker Falcons in Mongolia from power line electrocutions. [Some responses are from Marty Niles, president of Cantega, which focuses on power system protection. This is part of the combined efforts of Burning Hawk Wines and Birdfreak.com to raise money and awareness for this wonderful conservation project throughout October. Check out more details on this project here.

  1. How long have you been into bird conservation?
    20+ years, I’ve been interested in birds since a kid too. My parents knew they were in trouble at preschool age when I brought home a large wading bird which almost pecked my grandfather in the face.
  2. How long has this particular project been a focus? ~3 years
  3. Why focus on the Mongolian Saker Falcon? It’s a red book listed species and a high profile bird (charismatic mega fauna).  If we solve problems with this bird, many other birds will also benefit (hawks, owls, eagles, vultures, etc.)

  4. Are there other birds that would benefit from installing these devices? Yes, see 3
  5. How do the devices work to prevent electrocutions? A bird must touch either two energized wires or one energized wire and a ground to be shocked.  Unfortunately many of the new lines in Mongolia are being built with concrete poles and steel crossarms.  This creates a situation where the cross-arms are grounded, thus perching birds must only touch 1 wire.  The top of the pole is also grounded, thus a bird touching the center wire is equally at risk (see photo).

  6. Photo of an electrocuted Upland Buzzard courtesy of Rick Harness

  7. How much does such a device cost to produce/install? The devices we want to install are insulation products as opposed to perch discouragers.  From Cantega President Marty Niles: Retrofitting poles with mitigation measures can vary significantly depending on the pole configuration and the related equipment on it, but typically between $700-$1,000 will protect most poles.

    Labor would not be much of a factor in Mongolia as labor rates are very low. This is the opposite of the US where labor costs often exceed the material costs and drive how to retrofit a pole.


  8. Could these be applied globally to other locations to prevent raptor deaths? In many countries concrete with steel is more the norm.  In the US we use wood on wood.  For retrofitting, yes this Mongolian approach will work anywhere.  More critical however is to convince utilities to not use this type of framing.  Concrete and steel can be safely used, but the wires should be suspended instead of supported on the top of the pole and cross-arms.  I worked with a utility in Utah using steel and concrete using this modified configuration.  We have had no problems on this modified line type.

  9. Do you know the success rate of such devices? I’m confident we can eliminate the problem with these solutions.  Nothing has yet been implemented other than developing the new products with Cantega.  I took the Cantega prototypes to Mongolia a couple weeks ago and left them with my field partner Dr. Gombobaatar (aka Gomboo).  He will be working with the utility to gain acceptance.  The goal is to gain acceptance on our approach and materials, and then to initiate a pilot project.

    We have inspected two lines which are killing hundreds of birds and these lines would make a good test case.  Once we have acceptance, raising money will be the next challenge.


  10. Why have such a specific focus: just this bird with just this project? Actually we are not specifically focused on one species and one project.   We are presently working with a dozen clients in the US on numerous raptor electrocution projects (on a wide variety of birds and configurations).  Plus we recently developed proposals for bird collision work in Europe and Hawaii. This is a unique pro bono project for our company EDM International, Inc. and is of great personal and professional interest to me.

    Fortunately I work in a company which supports such efforts.  When Dr. Gombobaatar initially contacted me I knew we could make a huge difference if we can get out ahead of this. Mongolia is going to grow and new lines will be built so changing the designs and retrofitting will save thousands of raptors while providing a more reliable electric grid.

  11. Are there other ways that could help out the Saker Falcon? Yes, Dr. Gombobaatar at the University of Mongolia has been putting nesting platforms on a numerous poles.  Many raptors in the steppe nest on the ground.  As such they are vulnerable to ground predators.  Placing nesting platforms will help reduce predation, but of course the poles need to be made safe too.
  12. What is the conservation status of the Saker Falcon? The Saker falcon is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red Book as an endangered species (CITES, Red Data Book, MCS).
    • The global population was estimated to have declined from 8,500-12,000 pairs in 1990 to 3,600-4,400 pairs in 2003.
    • Electrocutions were responsible for 54% of discovered Saker falcon carcasses (n=64) in central Mongolia between 1998 and 2004, Gombobaatar et al. [2004]
  13. Are there any other bird conservation projects you are working on? Yes, I’m working with the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in Fort Collins to host next years Raptor Research Foundations’ annual conference.  The Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, a nonprofit organization that provides raptor rehabilitation and environmental education, and will host the conference.  The conference will be highlighted by symposia on Raptor-Human Conflicts, Energy Development, Raptor Diseases, Bird Banding and Research, and Raptors in Education.  I am also a co-advisor to Dr. Gombobaatar’s gradate student In Mongolia who is doing his thesis on raptor electrocutions.  And I stay active with testing various raptor protection products and hosting workshops on how to retrofit poles.
  14. How will you update the conservation community on the outcome of this program? We will rely on people like you and Nick [from Burning Hawk Wines] to help get the message out.

    Gomboo and I tend to focus on the scientific community.  We will continue to write scientific papers but will rely on others to communicate our successes.  I’d also like to include the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in communicating our successes.  Cantega has also been donating their skill, time and materials to resolve this issue. From Marty: We are honored to have an opportunity to help protect any bird or animal and greatly appreciate Rick’s commitment to the protection of the Saker Falcon, but typically focus our efforts on providing solutions to our customers and leave that sort of thing up to our distributor, 3M.

  15. Do you use or plan to use social networking sites for promoting this project? I am open to any suggestions on how to effectively move this forward but as I mentioned in 13, I tend to be focused on the engineering and scientific community.

 From Marty: We have not in the past, but we will certainly be paying greater attention in the future. I also plan to provide a link to my pals back home in Lac La Biche, Alberta at the Lac La Biche Bird Society, they will be very interested in learning more as well!

We are open to comments, questions, or suggestions below about how to improve this project and other ways to spread conservation efforts in general. Please feel free to tweet this article and share with all your friends!

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