This $4B road project had a bird problem. Dogs are helping fix it

This $4B road project had a bird problem. Dogs are helping fix it
Bett, one of around 20 border collies helping herd birds at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, poses in a pair of goggles that protect against sun and sand. (Source: Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gibson)

To move a colony of migratory seabirds whose nesting site stood in the way of the $4 billion Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion project, Virginia officials came up with a plan to redirect them to newly created habitats nearby.

To attract thousands of birds to the designated sites on barges and Fort Wool — an old island fortification built in 1819 for coastal defense — workers put down sand, set up decoys and installed a sound system playing bird calls and “colony chatter.”

“That’s where the candlelight, the wine and the romantic dinners are,” said Rob Cary, chief deputy commissioner at the Virginia Department of Transportation.

But the project overseers also needed to find an animal-friendly way to discourage the birds from coming back to their former spot on an island that’s been paved over to prepare for the massive construction project. The solution? A friendly animal.

A pack of 20 border collies has been patrolling around the clock since late February on the bridge-tunnel complex’s south island, which is turning into a construction staging area. The dogs are working in shifts and wearing protective gear to keep them safe from the elements as they carry out their unique assignment.

They’ll be on the island all summer, until the end of the migratory season. Because the project to widen the route across the water from four lanes could take five years, the dogs might return for another tour of duty during future migrations.

Since the whole idea is to protect the birds, officials are quick to point out that the dogs aren’t hurting them.

“The birds just fly away and the dogs kind of run around like they’re chasing a tennis ball. They’re having a great time,” Cary said Wednesday as he updated the Commonwealth Transportation Board on the state’s bird herding efforts.

Stephen Meyers, a spokesman for Hampton Roads Connector Group, the joint venture carrying out the construction project, said the dogs have played a key role in pushing the birds to the new nesting sites “without harming them or doing them any kind of ill will.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.