Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln



Paul Royster

Date of this Version



The ominously imposing figure in the above illustration is “the Syncrude bird deterrent device, locally known as ‘Bitu-man’.” He stands (or stood—the original image was from the late 1970s) in the tailings pond of the Syncrude Canada Ltd. oil sands mining operation along the Athabasca River near Fort McMurray in northeastern Alberta. That operation surface mines (i.e., strip mines) bitumen-impregnated sand, processes it with hot water and steam, and discharges the liquid effluent or “tailings” into a pond covering roughly 3000 hectares (11 square miles). (Google Map coordinates: 56.9°N, -111.3° W). Residue bitumen collects on the surface and poses a serious threat to wildlife, especially migratory waterfowl. The danger is greatest in early spring, when surrounding natural lakes are still frozen, and the tailings pond offers the only open water for arriving birds. The oil sands operation sits in the heart of the breeding ranges of many North American bird species; ornithologist Paul Johnsgard calls the region the “duck factory”. It also lies along the migratory routes of many species that breed farther north. Bitu-man’s function was to scare birds away from landing and becoming oiled.