More intelligent approaches, understanding bird psychology, help cut risk of bird strikes

Safety fears have led to mass culls of birds near airports. But are such drastic measures necessary?  It appears that about 70,000 gulls, starlings, geese and other birds have been killed around New York airports since since 2009. They have been killed by shooting, trapping, and sometimes gassing.  The CAA say that the number of confirmed bird strikes rose from 1,496 to 1,665 between 2011 and 2015. Only in 6% of cases did it have some kind of operational effect on an aircraft.  In many of these incidents, planes aborted take-off, returned to the airport, or diverted to another. According to Natural England, 12,956 birds were culled in 2015-16. Rooks, crows and pigeons made up the largest number. Bird conservation organisations wan airports to use less barbaric ways of reduce the risk of bird strikes. There are various technological solutions that may be effective. One bird ecology professor at Exeter university said that it is necessary to understanding of the birds’ point of view.  A “sonic net” can be used, which is a noise played across areas to be protected. It needs to be at the same pitch as the alarm calls of birds, or predator noises that they are listening out for.  “When birds experience this they either leave the area or their vigilance goes up because they can’t hear each other’s alert calls or a predator coming.” So the birds move away, as it is too risky to stay.



Bird strikes can down airliners but are mass culls the answer?

By Mark Piesing (The i)

Tuesday April 18th 2017

Safety fears have led to mass culls of birds near airports. But are such drastic measures necessary?

In January 2009, in a “miracle” on the Hudson river, a stricken airliner ditched on the water with no loss of human life.

But it was no miracle for the birds of New York, which were blamed for the accident. Research has suggested that nearly 70,000 gulls, starlings, geese and other birds have been killed since then, mostly by shooting, trapping, and in some cases, such as Prospect Park, gassing.

Some campaigners have accused airports worldwide of a “post-Hudson panic” leading to the deaths of millions of birds.

“We were all very used to the geese in Prospect Park,” says Jeffrey Kramer, a volunteer for GooseWatchNYC. This group of wildlife “vigilantes” was founded in 2010 to encourage alternatives to the ineffective and inhumane culling of geese in New York City’s parks.

“Then we woke up one morning with a lake covered in feathers where there used to be hundreds of geese.”

Wildlife officials had taken the geese to a hangar at Kennedy Airport, where they were gassed.

In the UK, according to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the number of confirmed bird strikes rose from 1,496 to 1,665 between 2011 and 2015.

Only in 6% of cases did it have some kind of operational effect on an aircraft.  In many of these incidents, planes aborted take-off, returned to the airport, or diverted to another.

According to Nature England, 12,956 birds were culled in 2015-16. Rooks, crows and pigeons made up the largest number.

With numbers of bird strikes rising despite culls, protesters are demanding that the authorities use less barbaric ways of keeping the skies safe. While the technology to do this regularly hits the headlines, it rarely seems to reach the tarmac.

Avian radar is a case in point. It can track flocks of birds and has been used by the military for decades. It has helped the Israeli air force to reduce bird strikes by two-thirds. Why isn’t technology like this more widely used at commercial airports?

A bird’s eye view “Everyone knows that bird strikes are a problem that is not going away,” says Kramer. “The protesters and the cullers all acknowledge that killing isn’t the answer. Technology caused the problem, so technology will have to solve it.”

Professor John Swaddle, a bird ecologist, says: “It’s not a lack of technology that has prevented the problems of bird strikes being solved, it’s a lack of science. It’s a lack of basic understanding of the birds’ point of view.”

Swaddle, a visiting research associate at Exeter University, has developed the sonic net, a technology by which noise is played at the same pitch as the alarm calls of birds or predator noises they are listening out for – and, as a result, it becomes a lot riskier for them to hang around.

According to some, the problem is already being managed. “Airports in general are doing a good job. The problem with birds is that they adapt very quickly,” says Stephen Landells, a safety specialist at the British Airline Pilots’ Association.

“Airports are realising that you have to have a load of measures in place, and I think they are doing that quite successfully, because you don’t see many planes crashing.”

A spokesman for the CAA says: “The CAA considers airport habitat management practices across the UK to be effective at managing the bird strike hazard, and as a result the number of serious bird strike incidents that occur in the UK is relatively low.”

Others think the issue is more profound. “There is a human-wildlife conflict here,” says Jess Chappell, a policy officer at the RSPB. “We are encroaching on more and more wildlife habitats. It is a case of learning to live with wildlife rather than killing everything.”

Why bird strikes have become a big problem

Bird strikes are as old as aviation itself. One of the first recorded collisions between a bird and an aircraft was in 1908. The first human death occurred in 1912, when a gull collided with a wooden Wright Flyer. In those days, aeroplanes flew at much slower speeds and birds, by and large, had time to get out of their way. The invention of the jet engine changed all that. Today, a bird may hit a commercial airliner’s cockpit window, dent its fuselage or be sucked into its engine – causing expensive ground checks and delays.

If a plane collides with a whole flock of birds, then the damage can be a great deal more severe. They may take out an engine or more – and then, as in the landing on the Hudson it will come down to the skill of the pilot and the cleverness of the computers to prevent disaster.

For the bird, the collision is usually fatal; its DNA may be all that is left to identify what species it was.

For humans, it is less dangerous, with 25 deaths attributed to bird strikes in the US between 1990 and 2013.

The solutions attempted so far…

One of the first attempts at scaring birds away from runways was the humble scarecrow. Today, while all airports have a bird management plan, their techniques don’t seem to be very different. These can include playing bird calls, killing individual birds, playing loud noises and flashing lights, and even live-capture and relocation.

This is often accompanied by “habitat management”.   Cruder versions of this include netting over ponds and even, in China, training monkeys to destroy nests. Some airports grow long grass that is unattractive to birds. The failure of such techniques has been used to justify the continuation of culling – even though culls, many critics suggest, merely help the airports look as if they are doing something.

Now, inspired by nature, a new generation of solutions is being proposed, from drones that look like birds of prey through to low-level laser beams that the birds see as a physical object that they want to stay away from and don’t get used to, and Swaddle’s sonic net.

Yet even these are not without problems – real or imagined. The birds may quickly learn that a drone isn’t actually a hawk, while the lasers could blind a bird as they could an airline pilot; and it’s difficult to develop a sonic device that works with all bird species at the same time.

Despite its use by the military, avian radar has been criticised for requiring specialist staff and for not identifying specific species – although some types of avian radar can. “There is lots of work going into novel ways of dealing with this problem.

Lasers seem to be effective,” says Chappell. After successful trials at a small airport in the US, where there was an 80% reduction in the numbers of birds, Swaddle’s sonic net is set for a trial at a large airport in Singapore later this year. “When birds experience this they either leave the area or their vigilance goes up because they can’t hear each other’s alert calls or a predator coming,” says Swaddle.

“Unlike with other technologies, its effectiveness didn’t diminish over time. This is because not being able to hear predators is a real threat.

“In the end, to really manage these bird issues the technologies used are going to have to be complementary, like avian radar and the sonic net. I doubt that there will ever be a ‘silver bullet’ that will solve all the problems.”


See also

‘Miracle on the Hudson’ 2009 legacy: 70,000 birds killed around New York airports since then

On 15th January 2009 a US Airways Flight took off from New York’s LaGuardia, soon hit a flock of big Canada geese, lost both engines – but almost miraculously landed safely on the Hudson River. All 155 people on board survived. Birds took the blame for the incident, and have been paying for it with their lives ever since. An Associated Press analysis of bird-killing programs at the New York City area’s 3 major airports found that nearly 70,000 gulls, starling, geese and other birds have been slaughtered, mostly by shooting and trapping, since the 2009 accident, and it is not clear whether those killings have made the skies safer. Advocates for the birds say officials should find other, more effective ways to protect aircraft. Between January 2009 and October 2016, of the 70,000 birds killed, there were 28,000 seagulls, followed by about 16,800 European starlings, nearly 6,000 brown-headed cowbirds and about 4,500 mourning doves, and 1,830 Canada geese.  The FAA say of the known birds that caused damage to planes, in 249 incidents, 2009 – 2016, 54 were seagulls, 12 were osprey, 11 were double-crested cormorants and 30 were geese; 69 unknown. Airport officials try to keep birds out of a 5-mile radius around the airports’ runways.


Global bird culls by airports, to deter bird strike. Hundreds of thousands gassed, shot and poisoned

The issue of bird strikes for planes is an emotive one.  Some collisions do little damage to planes, but hitting a large bird can disable an engine, or worse.  While birds and planes co-exist, some strikes are inevitable. Rose Bridger has been looking into this subject for years. She says shortly after the Hudson incident in 2009, New York’s 3 main airports began culling Canada geese. This escaped public attention until June 2010, when wildlife officials rounded up nearly 400 birds and gassed with CO2 in a nearby buiding.  In fact, the geese that downed the plane were not locals, but migrants from northern Canada. By autumn 2013 geese were being rounded up from municipal properties within a 160 square kilometre area. After a non-fatal (for the plane) collision with a flock of geese at Schiphol in 2010, 5,000 were gassed in 2012. The area where geese are deemed a hazard to aircraft was extended to cover a 20 kilometre radius around the airport, and a further 10,000 geese were gassed between January and July 2013. In January, the New York Port Authority announced plans to eliminate the entire population of 2,200 wild mute swans. And there are many, many other examples. Airports should not be built in or near important bird habitats and migratory flightpaths.


And some earlier stories:

Gatwick objects to new hospice due to increase in ‘bird strike risk hazard’ – as within 13 km radius of airport

Under guidance from the DfT, airports have to be statutory consultees for any planning application within a radius of 13 km of the airport, that might have an impact on it, for a variety of reasons. One of these is the risk of bird strike, and so new developments that might attract birds are opposed. Now Gatwick Airport has objected to plans for a new hospice and homes in Pease Pottage [south of Crawley, and about 6km south of Gatwick airport] due to an increase in ‘bird strike risk hazard’. St Catherine’s Hospice would provide a 48-bed care facility, and there would also be up to 600 new homes, cafe, a community building, retail units, and a new primary school. The current hospice has only 18 beds, and is not able to cater for the number of people needing palliative support in the area  nor has sufficient family areas. Gatwick says the areas of open water in the application would attract birds large enough to endanger planes, including  feral geese, duck, grey heron and cormorants – especially if the public feed them. Gatwick also fear the mown grassland would provide a grazing habitat for birds. Gatwick wants minimal water. Airports keep their grassed areas as unappealing to bird life as possible. Gatwick set out, for the Airports Commission, what it would do to “control and where possible reduce bird hazard.”


Daily Mail claim of sharp rise in birdstrikes not borne out by the facts from CAA

The Daily Mail, it being the “silly season” with no news, had done an article on an alleged increase in the number air birdstrikes by aircraft between 2009 and 2012. However, the data published by the CAA up to March 2013 do not bear out the Mail’s claims of a doubling in three years. The CAA produces data on reported birdstrikes, and on confirmed strikes – the latter being a much lower number than the former. For instance, in 2012 there were 2215 reported birdstrikes, and 1404 confirmed strikes. Some of the increase in reporting may be due to changed reporting requirements of incidents to the CAA. The species hit most often in recent years have been various species of gulls (together the largest group), then swallows, skylarks, swifts and woodpigeons, then pigeons and kestrels. The number of birdstrikes rose significantly after 2008, when the CAA introduced a new system through which all strikes can easily be reported online. It has been mandatory for all strikes to be reported since 2004.

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Airports using a biotech high alkaloid endophytic form of grass to deter insects and birds

A form of grass – with the trade name Avanex – has been developed by a firm in New Zealand, Grasslanz Technology and commercialised by PGG Wrightson Turf. It has been designed to be endophytic, which means it incorporates a form of fungus that produces a high amount of alkaloids. This makes the grass distasteful to insects, and so the areas sown with this grass have no or few insects, and consequently few birds. The grass can be toxic to animals and comes with health warnings about livestock eating it. However, airports are enthusiastic to use the grass in order to deter birds and hence the risk of bird strike. The grass has so far been trialled in New Zealand airports since 2010 and found to cut bird numbers by large amounts, making airports very sterile areas, which is what the airport operators want. However, the blurb says “The grass could also be used at sports stadiums, golf courses and even domestic lawns,” so the company wants to use its biodiversity-destroying product even more widely.

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CAA data shows 1529 birdstrikes in 2011, up from 1278 in 2009

The CAA reports that bird strikes are on the increase throughout the UK, with 1529 reported last year – up from 1278 in 2009. For Scotland the CAA has said bird strikes have risen at Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness airports over the past 2 years, with an increase in wild flocks and air traffic blamed. Bird strikes have been blamed for bringing down huge aircraft in the past, including the incident in 2009 where an Airbus A320 was forced to ditch in the Hudson river in New York. Glasgow Airport reported 8 strikes this year involving large birds, up from the usual annual average of 3. The Herald Scotland gives information about increases at Scottish airports.

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