After US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada Geese, disabling both engines as it was taking off from LaGuardia Airport and resulting in a successful ditching in the Hudson River on national television, we’ve been hearing more about bird strikes at airports. Bird strikes are of interest to PMPs, not only due to potential opportunities to assist with bird control at airports, but also as they highlight the public health importance of proper bird management. Here Bird-B-Gone Ornithologist and urban bird expert Dr. Rob Fergus answers questions about bird strikes, bird control at airports and how these same techniques can be used in other high-profile commercial accounts.
Q: The “Miracle on the Hudson” is the most prominent bird strike incident to make the news, but it’s not the only case. How prevalent are bird strikes in and around U.S. airports?
A: You won’t see this on television, but birds are colliding with airplanes every day. There were 116,408 aircraft bird strikes reported at 1,714 U.S. passenger and general aviation airports from 1990-2011. The number of reported strikes is increasing each year. In 2011, there were 27.6 bird strikes a day for a record high of 10,083 reported strikes. Military planes also frequently collide with birds; the U.S. Air Force reported an additional 4,471 strikes in 2011. While all bird strikes are potentially dangerous, fortunately, the number of damaging strikes has been decreasing; only 541 strikes caused damage to civilian airplanes in 2011. Since up to 80 percent of all bird strikes are not reported, it is impossible to know their true economic impact, but researchers estimate that they cause $718 million in damages each year.
Q: Why do airports seem to be so susceptible to bird populations that can cause potential problems for pilots and air travelers?
A: Airports by their nature are located in flat, open areas. We might see these as barren wastelands as we taxi to and from the terminal, but open airport runways and grasslands are attractive to many birds. In addition, airports are often located near shorelines, lakes, wetlands and other habitat for hawks, geese, ducks, gulls and other waterbirds. These are large and heavy birds that cause the greatest damage to airplanes and are usually of greatest concern. Many potentially dangerous birds are actually increasing across the country — double-crested cormorant populations are growing 6 percent a year, and turkey vulture numbers are up 2.6 percent each year. Resident Canada goose populations have stabilized, but from 1980 to 2000 their numbers increased from 500,000 to 3.5 million. There are also more flights than ever before, increasing the possibility of collisions with birds.
Q: Are there any regulatory issues PMPs should be aware of when treating airports and other large commercial jobs?
A: As a matter of significant public health and safety, bird strike prevention falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS). These agencies have issued guidelines and regulations to minimize bird strike hazards at airports and surrounding facilities. When bird strikes or potentially hazardous conditions are identified, airport managers are required to conduct a Wildlife Hazard Assessment, and depending on the threats they face, may be required to create a Wildlife Hazard Management Plan. These assessments and plans are conducted and implemented by wildlife biologists who are trained and certified in wildlife damage control (meeting criteria for federal GS-0486 wildlife biologist positions, with additional training in airport wildlife damage management).
Monitoring bird movements and excluding birds and other wildlife from airports is a full-time job. Most PMPs will not meet federal qualifications to conduct Wildlife Hazard Assessments or implement ongoing Wildlife Hazard Management Plans. However, PMPs may seek opportunities to provide services recommended in an airport’s Wildlife Hazard Management Plan, such as installation of spikes, bird netting or other exclusion technologies on terminals, aircraft hangars and other airport buildings.
Q: What are the bird “hot spots” PMPs should pay particular attention to at airports?
A: Except during migration, most bird flights are at low altitudes, and that is where most bird strikes occur. Seventy-two percent of strikes occur below 500 feet altitude, 81 percent happen below 1,000 feet and almost all (92 percent) birds are struck at altitudes below 3,500 feet. Low-flying birds make landing and takeoff the most dangerous times for bird strikes. Most birds are struck on the approach (40 percent) or landing roll (17 percent), or on the takeoff run (19 percent) or climb out (18 percent), so the airport and immediate surroundings are the most dangerous for bird strikes.
In most cases, PMPs working at an airport will do so under the supervision of an airport biologist who has created or is implementing a Wildlife Hazard Management Plan, and that plan should identify the problem areas to be addressed on site. These may include bird nesting or roosting locations on airport buildings, light poles and other structures. Airport water features, such as detention basins, attract geese and other birds, and usually require installation of exclusion net or other devices. Food-service and catering facilities should be bird free, as should trash storage areas. House sparrows are frequent airport terminal invaders, and while they may pose a minimal flight hazard (only 3 of 118 reported collisions with house sparrows caused aircraft damage between 1990 and 2011), their chirping and hopping around inside a terminal does not inspire public confidence in airport management. PMPs can help ensure that house sparrow nesting sites are sealed and birds removed.
In addition to airports themselves, surrounding areas that attract birds are a source of concern to airport managers, and a possible source of bird exclusion work for PMPs. Municipal solid waste landfills located within 10,000 feet of a runway used by turbojet aircraft are required by law to demonstrate that their facility does not pose a risk. Any waste facilities within five miles of an airport are of concern, as are wastewater facilities, storm water detention basins, golf courses and other land uses that attract birds within five miles of an airport. Managers of these facilities probably already know of their proximity to the airport and the safety concern that this causes. PMPs may profitably work with these facilities to exclude Canada geese, gulls and other hazardous birds.
Q: What are the most effective techniques/strategies for managing bird populations in and around these locations?
A: Buildings and water features at airports should be treated as similar structures everywhere else. PMPs should consult with airport biologists on the most effective strategies for bird exclusion from these sites based on the architectural features of each structure, birds to be excluded and local conditions. As examples, the Portland International Airport (PDX) installed bird netting under the terminal walkway to exclude birds from I-beams and Denver International Airport (DIA) installed Bird Slope in all their parking garages to prevent birds from nesting on ledges.
In addition to bird exclusion activities, airport biologists frequently engage in extensive habitat management and alteration, including elaborate mowing regimes, to reduce landscape attractiveness to birds. Airport management also requires continual and ongoing monitoring of airport bird populations and movements, as well as active hazing of birds on site. While PMPs will usually not be involved in these other bird control activities, review of an airport’s Wildlife Hazard Management Plan can help PMPs better understand how bird exclusion work fits into a comprehensive management regime, and may draw attention to additional ways to help the airport biologist implement the plan.
Q: Are PMPs qualified/equipped to perform these types of jobs? How can Bird-B-Gone help?
A: Since ongoing bird hazing and exclusion of birds from runways requires the skills of a certified biologist, most airport opportunities for PMPs will involve installation of bird exclusion technologies on buildings on airport property. Bird-B-Gone can help consult with PMPs on appropriate and most effective bird exclusion technologies and strategies, and can conduct installation training for PMPs. Airport biologists and other airport personnel who implement FAA-approved Wildlife Hazard Management Plans are required to receive initial and ongoing training on managing hazardous wildlife on or near airports, and PMPs interested in exploring other bird control opportunities on or near airports should consult with their airport biologist about participating in available airport wildlife hazard training courses and other opportunities.
Final Thoughts. PMPs should become familiar with their local airport wildlife operations, and should not hesitate to discuss bird strike hazards with clients or potential clients located near airports. Facilities with known bird concentrations near airports should mitigate these hazards, and may even need to explore the potential for liability should their known bird concentrations remain undressed. Geese roosting and feeding areas, vulture roosts, seasonal crow roosts and other large bird concentrations should all be kept as far from airports as possible, especially within five miles of runways where planes are descending and are most likely to encounter flying birds.
PMPs interested in this topic can get up to speed by reading the Additional Resources listed at left. In addition, specialized training in airport bird hazard management is available at an annual Bird Strike Committee-USA meeting and certified training programs can be found online (search for airport wildlife hazard management training).
Fergus has a Ph.D. in urban bird conservation from the University of Texas. If you have a bird-related question for him, visit the “Ask the Bird Expert” section of the Bird-B-Gone website, www.birdbgone.com.
Bird Harassment, Repellent and Deterrent Techniques for Use on and Near Airports
Bird Strike Committee-USA
Guidebook for Addressing Aircraft/Wildlife Hazards at General Aviation Airports
Wildlife Hazard Management at Airports (FAA)
Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States 1990-2011