Keeping birds away from BWI is a multi-pronged attack

January 25, 2010|By Michael Dresser |

Wildlife biologist Jeremy Smith loves birds. He admires their "intricate design" and "awesome" variety.

But when birds intrude on Smith's workplace, the 33-year-old U.S. Department of Agriculture employee is prepared to eradicate their habitat, harass them off the premises and - if necessary - take a shotgun to them.

Smith works at Baltimore- Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, serving as the front line of defense against birds that, if left unchecked, could wreak havoc on the engines of planes as they take off and land.

The job might not be a pretty one, but it's critical in ensuring the safety of BWI's passengers. Just over a year ago, Americans received a vivid reminder of the dangers of bird strikes when US Airways Flight 1549 was forced to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River after running into a flock of geese that stalled out both its engines after takeoff fromNewYork's LaGuardia Airport.

All 155 aboard survived, and authorities say that heightened awareness of bird strikes has led to a surge in the reporting of such incidents. The Associated Press recently reported that the number of reported bird-aircraft encounters in the United States was on track to shatter previous records and exceed 10,000.

At BWI, the annual average number of bird strikes has risen from the mid-20s in the early 1990s to the 80s in many recent years - a statistic that may reflect the growth in the airport's traffic, to some 700 flights a day, as much as any actual threat from birds. With 52 strikes reported as of July, the most recent figures available, BWI was on a pace to set a record in 2009, according to Federal Aviation Administration statistics.

When pilots or airport workers notice the presence of birds at BWI, one of the nation's 25 busiest airports, Smith is often the first to get the call. A 1995 graduate of Virginia Tech in wildlife biology, he is one of many USDA employees deployed to U.S. airports to coordinate efforts against birds and other species that can interfere with flights in the air or on the ground.

Trained at college in attracting and conserving wildlife, Smith has had to learn on the job how to reverse those skills to repel and eradicate animals on BWI's 3,500-plus acres.

According to Smith, who came to the airport in 2005, the collision of birds and planes is as old as aviation itself. "The Wright Brothers were the first folks to be involved in a bird strike," he said.

At BWI, the risks are posed by a wide variety of species, ranging from bulky Canada geese to majestic herons and tiny starlings.

The first line of defense is habitat control, Smith said. That means eliminating vegetation that would be attractive to birds - berry-bearing shrubs, for example. Another technique used at BWI, Smith said, is to build storm water management ponds that drain quickly, even after a heavy rain, so water birds are not attracted to the area.

Airport officials also work with local landowners to eliminate risks on their property. "A lot of that work goes beyond the fence," Smith said.

Smith said airport officials work diligently to destroy nests on or near the airport, noting, "We haven't had any Canada geese nesting here for more than five, six years."

But Avian Enemy No. 1 at BWI, Smith said, are sea gulls - the most commonly struck species worldwide. They are especially numerous this time of year, he said, dropping in to dine on earthworms when the ground gets saturated.

"Gulls like large open spaces and that's what an airport is," he said.

At BWI, Smith said, most bird strikes occur at heights less than 500 feet - far lower than the 4,000 feet at which the US Airways jet hit a migratory flock over New York.

That bird strike represented what aviators consider the worst possible scenario: hitting large birds in a large flock. But size is not the only determinant of lethal potential.

Michael J. Begier, national coordinator of USDA's Animal Wildlife Hazards Program, said the two most deadly plane crashes caused by bird strikes - one that killed 62 in 1960 at Boston's Logan International Airport and another that killed 30 in 1996 in the Netherlands - involved European starlings.

While starlings, one of the species common at BWI, are small, Begier said, they have dense bodies and travel in large flocks. In Europe they're called "feathered bullets."

"They can really tear an engine up," Begier said.

According to Begier, Smith is doing "an excellent job" at BWI even though it's impossible to prevent all bird strikes. "He's decreased risk to the flying public," Begier said.

Smith said that each airport poses its own challenges when it comes to controlling wildlife. Such East Coast airports as Washington's Reagan National, Logan and New York's Kennedy International sit right beside large bodies of water, he noted - a problem BWI doesn't share. The closest Chesapeake Bay tributaries, he said, are far enough away that the birds that flock there stay below the flight path.

When habitat control doesn't do the trick at BWI, the next step is harassment, Smith said. That can take many forms, including flares, other pyrotechnics and air cannons.

The effectiveness of nonlethal harassment varies from species to species. Some, such as blue herons, are easily spooked, Smith said. Others, such as geese and starlings, can become accustomed to the bangs and booms and hunker down around the runways.

That's when the shotguns come out.

"We will use lethal control to follow up the nonlethal harassment," Smith said. "If you didn't, it would not be doing your job."

The USDA scientist said he has no qualms about his role.

"I'm more willing to sacrifice some birds for some human lives in planes."

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