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Airports, technology and birds

Posted on Oct 24, 2013

Last week Twan showed me this link which containsNew York Times Op-Ed. “Those Hazardous Flying Birds” discusses airplanes and bird strikes while citing Federal Aviation Administration statistics which say more than 9,000 birds are hit by airplanes each year and in the last 23 years about one plane each day is forced to land because of such impacts. Apparently since the “Miracle on the Hudson” when US Airways Flight 1549 was steered to safety on the river after a Canada Geese strike by Captain “Sully” the federal government has slaughtered about 25,000 of the species that were captured near airports in America. Without getting into that matter for the moment it seems human safety vs. bird populations has never been a bigger topic. No t surprisingly some narrow-minded views have seemed to have taken over:

Still, the number of Canada geese sucked into jet engines nationwide in 2012 was the same as it was in 2009. In spite of government action, many experts agree the skies are no safer from bird strikes now than they were when Capt. Sullenberger’s plane went into the water after a bird strike.


One reason: the sheer scale of the bird population. It’s illusory to think we can sufficiently regulate the environment and kill our way out of this problem.


While we should always practice smart land-use and wildlife management, even the former national coordinator of the Agriculture Department’s Airport Wildlife Hazards Program, Richard Dolbeer, recently concluded, “management actions at and in the immediate vicinity of airports do little to mitigate the risk of off-airport strikes during departure and approach.” He said new technologies like avian radar should be more vigorously pursued.

Avian radar is discussed in depth with its costs vs. benefit analysis in terms of everything from the general economic loss via bird strikes to false positives and errors in the system. I cannot speak to that as I do not have any knowledge of the technology beyond this piece, but I can speak to this – why is seemingly the only way to manage wildlife killing them? And the immediate response to that in the next line was that there are essentially too many to kill?

I do not think it takes an expert to say there has to be another way to protect human life in a more effective, safer, cheaper way, and that is through active wildlife management that is not synonymous with mass killings. I lived all of my life in Connecticut near some of the largest airports in the world in New York and several smaller local ones. Additionally, past work that Twan and I have conducted has involved airport properties, with the point being that we are familiar with FAA regulations, the inherent dangers small airports face, bird strikes, and the species that generally occur on such lands. The vast majority of airports you’re familiar with likely feature acres and acres of mowed lawn that end up looking like your yard…or a park…or a golf course…or, you know, precisely what Canada Geese favor. With so many airports positioned near waterways, marshes, and coastlines, the likelihood that geese are in the area only increases.


Henslow’s Sparrow at Jamestown/Chautauqua County Airport by Twan Leenders

What is more likely to bring down a plane – a flock of a couple dozen Canada Geese or a few sparrows? If we allow our airports and associated lands to grow into managed grasslands cut annually or semi-annually it could not only reduce the likelihood that geese and large bird species congregate near airports but also improve habitat on a large scale for many uncommon or imperiled species. If the paramount concern is lessening the size and abundance of birds impacting airplanes then this is a humane and mindful way to do it. A strong example of what could be done at an airport can be found in this blog entry about Henslow’s and Grasshopper Sparrows discovered this summer at the Jamestown/Chautauqua County Airport:

Henslow’s Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows are usually found in fallow fields that include tall, dense grass and some broad-leafed vegetation, including weedy hayfields, pastures without shrubs and wet meadows. Airports often provide good habitat for these birds and for other grassland species such as Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark and American Kestrel. The specific maintenance activities that keep runway areas clear for take-off and landing result in a dense, low-growing ground cover free of trees and shrubs.

If airports, along with the assistance of conservation biologists such as RTPI’s staff, can set up a mowing and maintenance schedule and adhere to it then we can provide ample room for these critical species. In doing so it will create areas that are inhospitable to the main species of bird strike concern, and it can be done without compromising the safety and functionality of the airport. The airport and its staff would also be using less gasoline, less staff hours, and lessening the workload on their equipment, actually saving a good deal of money by cutting less frequently.

Yes, there will still then be grassland birds in the area of airports, and in some cases we will almost be inviting them to nest there. This can be a concern to some people and is certainly understandable. However, apart from the fact most of these birds are smaller in size, they are often also found in less abundance as they require a significant parcel of land to nest in. Henslow’s Sparrows are so very difficult to find because they do not want to be found! Some of these incredibly secretive grassland species prefer to act like ghosts in order to protect themselves and their young, moving in and through the grasslands and only rarely coming into the open to sing or, if necessary, respond to a potential threat. They are certainly not going to be looking to take off and fly in front of an aircraft. No system or management plan will ever be perfect, and as long as birds and aircraft share the skies there will be collisions. I certainly think this type of approach would be a far better way in every single regard. It will require a sizable shift in FAA regulations, airport management and decision making, and community involvement, but it can and should be at the very least attempted.


Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator

Photo © Twan Leenders