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Monday, Aug. 07, 2000

Nesting birds lead to many power outages

Squirrels, other animals contribute to problem

By Tina McCloud Daily Press

The female osprey surveys her territory from the safety of her nest, a big doughnut of sticks high atop a transmission tower that carries power lines across the Mattaponi River.

The potential contact of bird wings and electricity seems like a disaster waiting to happen -- curtains for the bird and a power outage for hundreds of people.

But Virginia Power workers have made sure this nest poses no problem. They erected a nesting platform -- a pallet about 4 feet square -- on the tower, but away from electrified equipment.

Birds and other animals caused 3,376 outages in the first six months of the year in Virginia Power's service area, which includes northern, eastern and central Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, said utility spokeswoman Patty Campbell.

That's more than 13 percent of the total 24,902 outages, she said.

In Mathews County earlier this summer, a stick or branch from an osprey nest atop a utility pole fell onto wires and started a fire that interrupted power to about 730 customers for several hours.

Only a few weeks later, a snake crawled into a substation in Gloucester, and about 10,000 customers were in the dark for a couple of hours.

But the problem is not solely a rural one.

Birds or other animals caused 182 power outages through June in the Peninsula area, including Newport News, Hampton, Poquoson and York County, Campbell said.

An outage could affect just one person or it might put thousands in the dark. And repairs can be difficult; the osprey stick fire occurred on a power pole in a river, so boats had to be brought in to get it fixed.

"It clearly is a real issue for us," said Campbell.

Figures are not available on how much the utility spends in preventing bird and animal misadventures, or if preventive measures save the utility money in the long run when compared to how much it costs to fix outages.

But the utility doesn't just wait for an outage to find a remedy.

The Walkerton osprey platform was erected about four years ago when new towers replaced older ones.

"There was always a nest on the old structure, and the local people wanted to keep that history going," said Bill Bolin, chief biologist for Dominion, which is Virginia Power's parent company.

In many cases, nesting platforms for ospreys are placed near, not on, the utility poles to give the birds an alternative site away from wires. As long as the platform is higher than the utility pole, "they go it almost automatically. It's a given," he said.

In cases where the utility wants to discourage nesting, workers place what is known as a "perch guard" atop the pole. This is a triangular structure, about 20 inches per side, made of PVC pipe.

"Typically, they won't sit on that perch point," said Bolin.

Perch guards were used in Virginia starting about eight or nine years ago to protect eagles, he said. The problem with those birds is that the wires might be four to five feet apart, but eagles' wing spans are six to eight feet. The birds could land all right but would get into trouble taking off, he said.

Harvey Kidd, operations team leader in the utility's Gloucester area office, said the spring-loaded perch guards can be snapped into place easily. Two were placed on the fire-damaged pole in Mathews after it was repaired. Those ospreys probably were practicing nest-building for next year, because this year's nesting season had passed, Bolin said.

Other bird deterrents are cross-shaped or long arcs.

Workers also might cut a plastic pipe in half lengthwise and place it over a part of the utility structure so nest materials will roll off.

"We try to keep ahead of the curve, but there's thousands of poles out there," said Bolin.

The utility also tries to keep non-flying critters, such as squirrels and snakes, out of its equipment.

Squirrels are the leading cause of outages in the Southeast region, which includes Virginia, according to a 1996 publication by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Squirrels are followed by birds (not including raptors, or birds of prey, such as ospreys and eagles), then raptors and snakes.

Kidd said all new transformers are delivered with a rubber cone to be placed on top, which is a prime place for electrical contact with small animals. A cone also is placed on any transformer that has to be repaired, he said.

The Gloucester substation, where the snake met his demise, is surrounded by a low-voltage wire placed on the ground, what Kidd dubs "a cattle fence made for snakes."

"It's a deterrent, not a killer," he said. How the snake got past the snake guard is unknown.

Virginia Power also tries to look out for marine life, according to Bolin.

At the Yorktown coal plant, warm water effluent from the process is piped a long distance out into the York River so there's less impact on fish in shallow water, he said.

At the Surry nuclear plant, a lot of young fish were sucked in with water used for cooling. Eventually, the utility developed a system that dumps the fish back in the James River. It's patented and used around the world, Bolin said.

But before that, the utility tried air bubbles, underwater strobe lights, even music to keep the fish away from the intake pipe, he said.

"Hard rock was like a magnet. We figured they were all teen-age fish," Bolin said.

Tina McCloud can be reached at (804) 642-1746 or by e-mail at

-- (, August 07, 2000

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