November 6, 2008

Newest Air Defense: Bird Dogs

By Laura Ruane

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Just in time for the fall migrations, Southwest Florida International Airport has unleashed its newest tool for keeping birds and aircraft apart.

She's Sky, a 1-year-old border collie less than two months into her job of shooing birds off the airfield.

"She's not aggressive at all, but to the birds, she looks like a predator -- a wolf or a coyote," said James Hess, airport operations agent and Sky's handler.

Big birds or flocks of birds can disable wing tips, dent the fuselage, foul the motor or break windshields.

Southwest Florida International is among about 20 airports nationwide using dogs for some form of wildlife control, according to Rebecca Ryan, owner of Flyaway Farm and Kennels, which has supplied dogs to both military and commercial airfields.

"This is the time of year when some of the largest birds create the biggest problems for airports," said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. Freezing temperatures and dwindling food sources send birds south, with the biggest North American migrations between October and late December, Butcher said.

Stakes are high for keeping birds at bay. In June, the Federal Aviation Administration released a report on wildlife strikes to aircraft between 1990 and 2007. The findings:

*More than 82,000 aircraft-animal collisions were reported to the FAA, with birds involved 97% of the time.

*Eight wildlife strikes caused 11 human deaths. "In most cases, the plane was damaged, and pilots lost control of the aircraft," said Sandra Wright, manager of the FAA's bird/wildlife strike database.

*Reported losses from bird strikes alone totaled $291.1million and 362,073 hours in aircraft down time.

Nature of the problem

Southwest Florida International was among the first U.S. commercial airports to employ a bird dog, beginning in 1999, according to airport director Bob Ball. Sky is the third generation of her breed to patrol the airport southeast of Fort Myers, Ball said.

New York's JFK International and Charleston (S.C.) International also use dogs for wildlife control, Ryan said. Canada's Vancouver International has two border collies, spokeswoman Alana Lawrence said.

Each airport has its own problem species. Cattle egrets, little blue heron, great egrets and grackles are problems year-round at Southwest Florida International, Hess said. JFK is a magnet for gulls, geese and starlings, said Port Authority spokesman Pasquale DiFulco.

Starlings, Canada geese, red-tailed hawks and American kestrels are problems at Minneapolis-St. Paul International, said John Ostrom, airside operations manager.

Denver's headaches include mourning doves, horned larks and cliff swallows, airport spokesman Jeff Green said. At Seattle-Tacoma International, starlings, gulls and killdeer are on the watch list, wildlife biologist Steve Osmek said.

Array of non-lethal arsenal

Border collies -- trained to adapt their natural herding instincts to stalking and chasing away birds -- are among many non-lethal means airports have to deter wildlife strikes.

Among the most common are habitat management such as keeping the grass mowed. Some airports scare off critters by firing guns that shoot blanks and propane cannons that emit loud booms, Hess said.

Mobile radar systems assess real-time bird strike risk at some Air Force bases, which use pyrotechnics -- and occasionally radio-controlled model aircraft -- to encourage birds to scram, said Eugene LeBoeuf, chief of the U.S. Air Force's Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard Team.

Trained falcons discourage other species from New York's JFK, DiFulco noted.

Airport operations agents at Tampa International drive vehicles that can broadcast recordings of seagulls screaming in distress, said spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan.

"There's really no single tool that will solve your (wildlife) problem," said Ostrom, who is also chairman of Bird Strike Committee USA, a voluntary association of aviation and wildlife experts.

The costs of training and maintaining collie or falcon teams can be steep. One trained dog and handler from a private service can cost $80,000 to $100,000 annually, LeBoeuf said.

Ruane reports for The News-Press (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>