Ellie is an 8-year-old border collie who works as the “bird dispersal specialist” for both the Chicago and Tulsa engineer districts. (Photos courtesy of the Chicago Engineer District)

Border Collie Scares Birds Away From Two Locks

‘Bird Dispersal Specialist’ Splits Year
Between Tulsa And Chicago Districts

The Corps of Engineers’ bird dispersal specialist stays busy, working 24/7, year-round, splitting her time between the Tulsa and Chicago districts.

She also happens to be a dog.

Ellie, 8, is a border collie. From April to August, she prevents damage from perching and nesting seagulls and geese at the Chicago Harbor Lock and Dam. From September to March, she works at the Robert S. Kerr Lock and Dam 15 in Sallisaw, Okla., dispersing double-crested cormorants, which flock to the structure in the fall and winter months.

Ellie was purchased from Flyaway Farms and Kennels in Chadbourn, N.C., which trains border collies for bird control. She has been carefully trained around people and children for the purpose of clearing birds. This is her fifth season in Chicago.

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Ellie isn’t a retriever, so she doesn’t feel the need to catch or return a bird to feel successful and can clear protected birds without harming them.  Because border collies are high-energy dogs, the more Ellie works, the more satisfied she becomes. Mention “birds,” and she will perk her ears up and start looking because she knows what the word means.

Birds are naturally fearful of dogs, so her presence discourages seagulls from nesting and leaving behind waste that corrodes and damages the Chicago Harbor Lock.  Ellie helps prevent damage to operating equipment, which improves the reliability of the lock.

Lockmaster Tyrone Valley with Ellie at Chicago Harbor Lock. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Engineer District)
Lockmaster Tyrone Valley with Ellie at Chicago Harbor Lock. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Engineer District)

Because geese are migratory and return to where they were born to raise families as adults, Ellie is also preventing future generations of geese from nesting on the lock wall, said Earnest Green, assistant lockmaster.

“Border collies are busy dogs, so it works out for her,” lockmaster Tyrone Valley said. “She’s busy all year chasing birds.”

While visiting Chicago for the summer months, Ellie has also become somewhat of a celebrity. Boaters look for her and want her to come out on the lock wall, Valley said. Some bring her treats, but because of security reasons and her strictly monitored diet, treats must come from unopened packages and be handed directly to lock personnel to dole out sparingly.

She has also made friends among her coworkers, giving special, loving attention to a woman once afraid of dogs until she got to know Ellie.

About once an hour, Ellie goes outside to do her normal duties. Her handler walks her along the lower walls of the lock.

“Whenever she sees a bird walking on the wall, she’ll chase the birds away,” Green said.

The rest of the time, she hangs out in the lockhouse, where she eats her meals and relaxes with her coworkers, perhaps playing with one of her many balls, enticing someone into to a game of tug-of-war or sitting on her own chair in the tower, where she likes to look out the windows and sometimes settles down for a nap.

The idea for Ellie’s visits to Chicago came from the Corps’ annual Lock Maintenance Workshop, where the Tulsa district shared her success with them in 2017. That year, Ellie won a special award for innovation.

“It’s like night and day when she’s here,” Green said of the difference in the birds’ behavior in Chicago when Ellie is on duty compared to when she returns to Tulsa.

Valley said Ellie is very good at her job, but her personality tends to be more laid back.

“When she’s working, she’s all about business,” he said. “Sometimes she’ll be chasing birds, and she will just sit on the wall and stare at them as they swim away.”

Ellie is not only a great coworker, he said, but also a good companion.

“She likes being around people,” he said. “If we’re outside working, Ellie is right there with us. You can’t go out the door without Ellie wanting to go with you.”