When Animals and Airplanes Collide

  • Airport Operations Manager Todd Laps uses pyrotechnics - and sometimes just plain old honking the car horn - to harass birds and keep them away from the airport. (Photo by Julie Grant)

If you bite your nails every time
you’re on a plane – the increasing
number of bird strikes might give
you one more reason for concern.
Julie Grant reports on efforts to
prevent airplanes from hitting birds:


If you bite your nails every time
you’re on a plane – the increasing
number of bird strikes might give
you one more reason for concern.
Julie Grant reports on efforts to
prevent airplanes from hitting birds:

Todd Laps probably never envisioned that he’d spend his days harassing
birds. He’s operations manager at the Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio.

(sound of a plane landing)

But for the past few years, he’s started doing everything he can to keep
birds off the runway.

(sound of a horn)

Sometimes he just chases them in a truck while honking the horn.

“If you chase them around enough, they get tired of it, and they leave.
But you may have to drive around blowing the horn for five minutes to get
them to leave.”

(sound of a horn)

It’s not that Laps hates birds. He’s actually trying to save them –
from getting sucked into plane engines. That’s pretty bad for the birds.
It can also damage the planes.

The Federal Aviation Administration says bird strikes have killed more than
200 people worldwide since 1988 – and cost the U.S. aviation industry
hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ever since geese took out both engines in US Airways flight 1549 earlier
this year – leading to that dramatic flight into the Hudson River –
more airports are paying attention to the surrounding wildlife.

Mike Begier is national coordinator of the Airport Wildlife Hazards Program
with the US Department of Agriculture.

He says populations of larger birds – such as geese – are increasing. At
the same time, there are more planes in the air then there used to be.

“So we’re competing for the same airspace. So it’s a probability.
The more times you fly, the more chances you have to strike something.”

Begier says most airports were built a little outside of the city, in
green, wet areas. And those places attract lots of birds and animals.

“Birds may want to stop over there and rest. Airports that do not have
adequate fencing wind up being a refuge for deer or coyote.”

At the Akron airport, they’ve recently cut down 40 acres of trees to make
the area less attractive to wildlife. They’ve also started mowing more
to discourage bugs. Without bugs, there are fewer small mammals and birds.
The folks in Akron think it’s made a difference reducing the number of

Airports are not required to report wildlife strikes. Some do voluntarily.
When the FAA opened up its records on collisions between planes and birds
and coyotes and even alligators this year, it looked like the number of
accidents was on the rise at some airports.

But Begier says those numbers don’t provide an accurate picture.
Airports don’t have to report them, so as many as 80% of strikes still go

“So when we see these high numbers of strikes, it’s important to
realize that the airports are actually being proactive, that they’re
reporting their strikes – which is a very good thing.”

Begier gives the example of JFK airport in New York. It’s in the top ten
airports nationwide reporting the most wildlife strikes. That sounds bad.
But because JFK voluntarily reported accidents, biologists were able to
figure out part of its problem. When the nearby bayberry bushes were ripe,
they were attracting lots of birds. By removing the bushes, they reduced
the number of accidents.

Researchers are also experimenting with higher tech solutions at airports.
They’re trying laser lights to harass birds away from hangars, using
small radar units to track birds and warn planes of approaching danger, and
using pulsating lights on planes to mimic bird predators.

But for USDA wildlife biologist Rebecca Mihalco, the old fashioned methods
are the most rewarding – at least today. She works at the
Cleveland-Hopkins airport and just caught a red-tailed hawk.

“I’m always excited when I catch a hawk. I guess I’m a kid that

Mihalco drove the hawk far away from the airport and released it.

But to avoid so many accidents with wildlife, airports will have to do
better than catching them one at a time or chasing after birds and honking
at them.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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