The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Wildlife Service (WS) programme sees biologists work closely with airport authorities to mitigate the adverse impact that wildlife can have on aircraft safety and ongoing airport operations
The dangers caused by wildlife to aircraft are generally well known, but mitigating that threat is easier said than done. The USDA has taken a leading role in researching the causes of bird strikes – the most common threat to aircraft safety from wildlife – assessing how best to meet that danger at a conceptual level, and then working closely with US civil and military airport and air base operators to executive effective counter-measures on the ground.
The WS programme, which comes under the remit of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), also works closely with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to provide scientific and operational expertise to assess and reduce the safety risks and economic impacts to aviation caused by birds and animals.
At its widest level, “The WS programme’s role is to help the public when they come into conflict with wildlife,” informs Mike Begier, the national coordinator for the WS Airport Wildlife Hazards Program. That ‘conflict’ can range from dealing with invasive species such as European starlings, to protecting timberland and agricultural land from wildlife that threatens the ecosystem.
Begier’s own area of responsibility covers human health and safety in relation to aircraft and their potentially very dangerous interaction with wildlife. The WS Airport Wildlife Hazards Program encapsulates more than 400 wildlife biologists who specialise in areas such as bird identification and wildlife control.
In 2017, WS biologists assisted 890 airports and air bases, including 77% of the 520 airports certified for passenger traffic in the US. Right now, Begier confirms, WS has biologists based on a long-term basis at approximately 145 civil or military airports/air bases across the US, as well as at a few US military bases abroad.
All are there at the request of the airport operator concerned, and all are paid for by their hosts, and not from Federal tax dollars. The airports that welcome these WS biologists are of various shapes and sizes, ranging from the super hubs such as New York JFK to the likes of Washington Dulles and down the scale to smaller regional or general aviation facilities. Likewise, the military bases can be large or small, sited close to population centres or in relatively rural locations.
The WS biologists that are involved in the programme are all similarly trained – another part of Begier’s sphere of responsibility – in disciplines such as animal physiology and conservation.
Once on-site at an airport, their first task is to assess why the problematic species, be it birds or other animals such as deer – also a big problem in the US for motor vehicles as well as aircraft – are there. Surveying and observing the wildlife, they seek to ascertain why the animals are active around the airport location. It is likely to involve one or more of the three factors that make up the so-called “habitat triangle’, Begier says – food, water and cover.
Thus, birds might nest under an airport jetway because the infrastructure provides shelter from the elements. The run-off from the large amounts of paved surface that are a feature of any airport might be creating areas of standing water ideal for animals to drink from. Or an airport’s environmental planting programme might be creating a habitat that attracts animals for the food that may be found within it.
After observing and assessing the reasons behind the presence of the problematic wildlife, the WS Airport Wildlife Hazards Program biologists will then be able to present their findings to the airport operator, complete with recommendations for how the problem should be tackled.
These recommendations are likely to include a range of passive and/or active counter-measures. Passive counter-measures seek to remove the reasons for the animal presence, and might involve changing the airport planting programme or avoiding standing water from run-off as far as possible, for instance.
More active measures might include falconry to harass birdlife (although this is rare in the US and a much more commonly adopted tactic in Europe); dogs to scare away birds near runways or taxiways; pyrotechnics to create lights, perhaps shower sparks, and create noise; propane cannons to create even more noise; lasers to scare nesting birds in hangars or other airport areas; or even unmanned aerial vehicles that are designed to look like birds of prey to scare away other birds in flight.
The final option is the use of lethal methodologies, such as employing a firearm to kill the problematic wildlife. Such action has to be permitted by both state and federal authorities and, in fact, only 10% of the animals dealt with as a result of the programme are killed – 90% of animals are harassed or scared away, says Begier.
To ensure transparency, the Airport Wildlife Hazards Program biologists will log all the action they take. Certainly, the US has a long history of concern for the nation’s environment and habitat, and this dedication to conservation is reflected in the tactics that the WS biologists will recommend.
The WS also provides the FAA with an expert research and analysis role. Thus, for example, since 2009 the WS’s National Wildlife Research Center in Ohio and its partners have published results from 118 research studies related to habitat management, wildlife control and technologies to mitigate wildlife strikes. Two recent research areas include the evaluation of bird-detecting radar systems at airports and the use of lighting systems to help birds detect and avoid aircraft
APHIS also maintains the National Wildlife Strike Database for the FAA, another tool for the analysis of effective counter-measures. “Information from strike reports helps us to better define and reduce wildlife hazards at airports,” notes Begier, pointing out that while the recorded number of incidents of damaging bird strikes to aircraft on the ground has fallen in recent years, the number of bird strikes on aircraft in localised airport airspace has risen slightly, perhaps due to better reporting and recording procedures.
Using the feedback from pilots involved in these incidents as recorded in the ‘comments’ section of the database, it has become clear that birds have generally been taking evasive action when they collided with an aircraft. Those findings are backed up by further assessment of bird carcasses assessed post-strike, the animals having more often than not having been hit on the tops of their bodies or from behind. They seem to have been trying to evade the aircraft, but not had the time to successfully do so.
This has led APHIS biologists to believe that methods of alerting birds early to an aircraft’s presence might have a very beneficial effect. As a result, one research programme has looked into using the aircraft’s own navigation lights in different ways (perhaps different colours, perhaps pulsing at certain frequencies) to warn or scare birds off earlier than aircraft currently do.