EDMONTON - The head of Syncrude Canada says he's personally upset over the latest incident involving dead birds on a company tailings pond.

But Scott Sullivan said his staff did the best they could to prevent the 350 deaths on Monday night and that all deterrence devices — flare guns, air horns and noise cannons — were working.

That, he told reporters Wednesday, is what makes the deaths even more of a head scratcher.

"Our response was very rapid. We had people out right away. We were able to access the (tailings pond) water much more quickly," said Sullivan.

"We've done everything we can to minimize the impact of this event.

"When we fully deploy our deterrents — as we had in this situation — they have been effective."

The waterfowl had to be killed after they landed on Syncrude's Mildred Lake tailings pond. A handful of other birds died on nearby Shell and Suncor tailings ponds as well. The companies say freezing rain may have forced the birds to ground and they point to other exhausted birds that were spotted on roads and parking lots.

Syncrude has been in the public eye for two years over a protracted court battle in Alberta after it was charged for not preventing 1,600 ducks from landing and dying on one of its tailings ponds in 2008. Pictures of the ducks — suffering and sinking in toxic, gooey effluent or being eaten alive by ravens — flashed around the world and became potent symbols for critics who say the energy benefits of the oilsands don't outweigh the environmental impact.

Syncrude was found guilty last spring and on Friday agreed to pay $3 million in penalties.

Sullivan said a second incident is very troubling.

"(I'm) very upset, very concerned. We have 5,500 employees and many contractors who are very proud to work at Syncrude, and obviously we're all very sorry that this event has occurred, and we're determined to find out what we can do going forward."

Sullivan says Syncrude has ramped up research in deterrence technology since the 2008 case and will work to more fully understand bird migratory patterns, specifically through a $1.3-million study it is funding through the University of Alberta. The money was part of the sentencing deal in the 2008 case.

"I think we need to engage the scientific community and we need to understand what role weather played in this event," said Sullivan.

Colleen Cassady St. Clair, an associate biology professor at the University of Alberta who will be part of the study, said new technologies are coming on line.

She said birds can see ultraviolet light and testing is being done to see if that can be harnessed as a deterrent.

And there are other breakthroughs, she said.

Put a point of laser light at the feet of a goose and it will back up, she said.

"On offshore (oil) platforms they found that by switching from red lights to green lights they reduced the (bird) strikes on the platforms dramatically," she said, adding it has never been clear why birds react differently to the lights.

"There might not be such a nice silver bullet very often, but ongoing research to identify best practices can reduce the probability of landings as much as possible.

"And that's the appropriate target. I don't think it's appropriate to think we can eliminate landings on tailings ponds."

St. Clair said she is also researching why birds strike windows and said technology is improving there as well. She noted birds die in many ways — at airports and flying into wind turbines and office windows.

She said it's impossible to rank where the oilsands fit into that.

"It's a little bit dangerous to compare an event numerically to others, but it is true millions of birds die every year striking windows," she said.

Sullivan, when asked if he felt like Syncrude was getting an unfair black eye for its share of bird deaths, declined comment except to say, "It's our responsibility to talk with (the media) about the incident, give the best information that we can and move forward."