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article imageGeese Pose Big Risk at Northeast US Airports

By Joan Firstenberg     Jan 17, 2009 in Environment
Was it big birds that got into both engines of the US Airways jet that landed in the Hudson River Thursday? Officials say it's more than likely.
It's like a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, "The Birds". But it's actually more real than we might think. Stephen Sigmund, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says this has been a problem for airplanes for a very long time.
"For years, airport officials have removed shrubs and trees that attract birds. They have tried to scare them away with music, pyrotechnics and cannons. They have even raided birds’ nests and culled the adults with shotguns."
But the efforts haven't really worked, because birds, very often geese, do end up in plane engines, causing inconvenience or crashes. They are the leading suspect in the water landing of a US Airways jet on Thursday into New York's Hudson River.
Sigmund says they're still investigating what actually caused the plane to go down, but that preliminary reports show that Flight 1549 was several miles away from La Guardia Airport, at 3,000 to 4,000 feet, when the pilot radioed that birds had hit the plane.
The plane where the birds struck was right above Rikers Island, home to a large colony of Canada geese, and experts say that does suggest that the birds could have been involved. Peter Capainolo, a senior scientific assistant at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who has worked with teams trying to scare birds away from airport runways says,
“Certainly if they were geese, the birds would have been large enough to do considerable damage."
New York is in the unhappy place of being a high-risk region for bird strikes. Its three big airports are right smack up against active wetlands, waterways and wildlife preserves, and Kennedy Airport is not only on the Atlantic flyway but also adjacent to Gateway National Recreation Area.
Mr. Capianolo notes that 80 percent of bird strikes do not severely damage airplanes.
“If it involves a small single bird, the pilot may not even realize that one has gone into the turbines of an engine.”
Susan Elbin, the director of conservation at the New York City Audubon Society, says millions of birds from more than 350 species pass through the New York region each year. She estimates the resident population of Canada geese in New York City and on Long Island is over 25,000, with another 25,000 believed to migrate through the area each year.
The bird population actually declined in the New York area in the 1970's because of environmental contamination. But laws enforcing cleaner air and water brought them back, and they were bigger than before. Canada geese, who prowl cities, golf courses, reservoirs and lawn maintenance providers, weigh about nine pounds and are notorious for their droppings of over a pound or more per day, per bird.
Yet these very geese are admired by biologists for their intelligence and resourcefulness. And common sense says it's not the birds' fault that they enjoy living in or passing through the New York area. In fact, many are believed to have descended from Canada geese that were imported in the early 20th century to be used as decoys by hunters, who clipped their wings.
Others came from farms in the 1950s to stock rural areas. Flocks of transitory birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 between the United States, Canada, Mexico and many other countries. But the region’s three major airports are required by law to manage wildlife to ensure aircraft safety. The Federal Aviation Administration, the Port Authority and the U.S.Department of Agriculture have tried to discourage birds from settling near airports, by removing shrubs, trees and other vegetation that attracts nesting. There is a five-year, $3 million program now going on at Kennedy Airport to disrupt the birds. At La Guardia Airport, birds’ nests are raided (the eggs are slathered with vegetable oil to prevent them from hatching), and attempts have been made at several airports to startle them.
Government consultants have trapped birds to euthanize them, and have blasted birds with shotguns. The population of Canada geese on Rikers Island has been especially persistent, despite nest destruction and an annual roundup since 2004.
Conservation groups are opposed to the agency's efforts. They say they endanger rare nesting colonies of gulls. Animal rights groups have criticized bird culls, but the Port Authority insists that they are sometimes necessary.
But the gathering of the birds around airports may be due to something we prefer not to think about. Joel L. Cracraft, a curator who heads up the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History says,
“There is evidence both in North America and in Europe that birds are shifting their territories. And that has been correlated with global warming.”
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