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Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Bird Strikes Create Not-So-Friendly Skies

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By Grace Chen

Wildlife strikes against aircraft have long been an issue for aviators, airports, and air travelers. Though some land animals have been known to interact unfavorably with aircraft, most issues occur with birds. With the number of airline accidents involving birds steadily increasing since 1988, the issue has become of utmost concern to the aviation industry.

Bird Strike Facts

According to the US Bird Strike Committee, over 56,000 reports of bird strikes against civil aircraft were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) between 1990 and 2004. Although commercial planes are large enough to sustain an encounter with a single bird, most bird species travel in flocks which can inflict a great deal of damage upon an aircraft. The FAA estimates bird strikes to civil aircraft in the United States cost upwards of $500 million per year. The Danger of Bird Strikes

Bird Strikes in the News

In 1960, Eastern Airlines flight 375 from Boston encountered a flock of starlings during takeoff and crashed into a nearby bay, killing 62 people and injuring many others. As recently as January 2009, reports of bird strikes affecting aircraft operation have been in the news. The widely televised emergency landing made by US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger was a direct result of a bird strike. The plane encountered a skein of Canadian geese during takeoff, rendering the plane's engines useless. Fortunately, Capt. Sullenberg was able to land safely in New York's Hudson River and no passengers were harmed. However, this is not always the case.

According to figures compiled by the FAA, more than 200 aircraft have been damaged and 219 people have died because of unwanted encounters with birds. One recent report on an FAA study concluded that one-third of commercial airports are ignoring bird strike dangers.

Reducing the Potential for Bird Strikes

The FAA is now requiring commercial airports to conduct studies on birds native to the facility area, in an effort to prevent bird strikes. Data gleaned from these studies is used to develop region-specific plans for reducing the number of birds congregating near airfields. Keeping grasses cut short, or changing the variety of flora in an area and limiting access to nearby bodies of water can help control the local bird population. Fireworks, light displays, and scarecrows may also be employed. The US government has actually lowered bird strikes on airbases by releasing trained predatory birds, like falcons, to clear the airspace before jets and other aircraft lift off.

Direct reduction of bird populations has been enacted in some cases, but effects on local ecosystems and endangered status must be considered. Some facilities employ wildlife specialists who use a combination of the above techniques as well as utilizing radar to keep tabs on bird activity.  Other airlines have modified actual aircraft to produce a series of pulsating lights, causing birds to sense a predator and vacate the area, there are other options available. Humane devices that discourage bird populations from high-traffic areas like airports can and have been used, with great success.

  • Physical Deterrents: Both bird spikes and bird netting have been shown to deter wild birds like starlings, pigeons, crows and more. Bird spikes are plastic or metal spikes extending the length of a central base. The base of the device is attached to eaves, roofs, or other areas birds may tend to roost. The spikes are not harmful to the animals, but irritating enough to discourage landing and roosting. The anti-bird netting physically prevents birds from entering certain areas, mostly to protect crops and endangered fish from predatory birds.

  • Ultrasonic Repellers: Another great bird control option, ultrasonic bird deterrents, create a hostile and uncomfortable environment for birds be emitting sounds that birds find highly irritating, but human’s cannot hear. For the Quadblaster Pro Ultrasonic Bird Repeller, the sounds are roughly equivalent to a jet liner taking off, hopefully deterring birds before actual airplanes need to take off or land.

  • Sonic Repellers: Devices like the Bird X Peller Pro Bird Repeller or the GooseBuster Geese Repeller emit audible noises that scare birds away from a specified area. The noise created by these electronic bird control devices are either distress signals of the birds being repelled and/or predator calls to further discourage birds from roosting. At times, the noises emitted by these bird control devices are actual alert and alarm calls recorded in the wild. Volume control, timing settings and many other features may be available depending on the model.

  • Taste Aversions: By making food taste bad to birds, experts have succeeded in better protecting trees and crops from the birds that snack on them. Many times these products are food-grade and biodegradable, or made from a constituent of other natural food items (like concord grapes) that certain species of birds find distasteful.

  • Visual Scare Devices: Natural predators like coyotes, owls, gators and foxes can effectively scare unwanted birds from many locations. These decoys are (many times) 3D realistic replicas designed to be highly visible and strike birds with instinctual fear. They’ve been use with great success in combination with both sonic and ultrasonic repellers. Bird Control Lasers, which confuse the birds in their flight pattern, can be used to deter birds from specified areas as well.

Airport and airline authorities continue to search for ways to reduce the risk of bird strikes and cultivate ideas to cope with local bird populations. Hopefully, more humane methods will be adopted and gain traction in the industry, saving the lives of both birds and humans alike.

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