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Falconry Used to Secure North American Airports

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
March 25, 2003
 
An unusual type of security force has taken wing at North American airports.

Joining dogs that sniff out contraband in the customs halls, falcons have been enlisted to scare off gulls and other birds that can be hazardous for airplanes in the critical moments of take-off and landing.

"What we're doing is utilizing the predator-prey relationship that they use in the wild," said Mark Adam, owner of Falcon Environmental Services, a private company with offices in New York and Canada specializing in the medieval art of falconry and applying it to modern situations.



In the United States, collisions between wildlife and aircraft, mostly bird strikes, cost civil aviation nearly $500 million a year in direct and associated costs such as aircraft downtime, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Just one bird can destroy a jet engine that costs $2 million. "The damage a bird can do to a plane is just astronomical," said Adam.

In the 12 years to 2001, the FAA received 39,177 reports of bird strikes to civilian aircraft in the U.S.—1,613 caused substantial damage and ten resulted in the destruction of the aircraft. At least 138 people died as a result of bird strikes worldwide during the 1990s.

The Bird Strike Committee USA, a volunteer group of federal officials, wildlife biologists, and aviation industry members, calculates that there are one in four odds that a bird strike on a large jet will cause a fatal accident in the next ten years.

Adam and his team of falconers use predatory birds like gyrfalcons, eagles, and peregrine falcons to clear the air. Falconers swing a lure and the falcon follows. The swooping shape of the predator in flight triggers nearby birds to find a safer place to stay. "They say, oh boy, this bird is dangerous," Adam said. "They'll give off an alarm call that other birds can hear for miles."

Falconry: Past and Present

Adam's work began as a childhood passion for falconry. As a student at McGill University in Montreal, he began working for a peregrine falcon reintroduction program. Then he began a pilot study using falcons to control birds at Dorval Airport in Montreal.

Now, he runs falcon programs at New York's John F. Kennedy Jr. International Airport and at civil and military airports across Canada. At JFK, Falcon Environmental Services works with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and federal officials as part of the airport's wildlife management program.

"The idea of using birds of prey to control birds is not a new idea," said Adam. Falcons and falconers began to appear in records from China, Arabia, and Persia nearly 4,000 years ago. From Aztecs to English kings, many cultures have hunted using falcons.

But pesticide-use hit falcons hard. Studies have shown that the pesticide DDT affected the thickness of falcons' eggs, resulting in dwindling populations. In 1970 the peregrine falcon, the world's fastest bird, was placed on the endangered species list with only 39 known mating pairs in the western United States.

With the ban on DDT and the help of programs like the Peregrine Fund, conservationists began rebuilding the peregrine population. In 1999 peregrines were removed from the Endangered Species List.

Better Conditions Boost Bird Numbers

The same successes that have helped restore falcons like the peregrine have also helped boost their prey numbers, causing a problem for airplanes.

Certain bird populations are soaring exponentially throughout the U.S., especially for waterfowl (geese and ducks). Commercial aviation has also increased over the years, so there are more flights encountering more birds. And airports with their big green fields and adjacent rural areas often make a most attractive habitat for birds to hang out.

"The reason the problem has increased is that we've seen a tremendous increase in populations of bird species that are hazardous to aviation," said Richard Dolbeer, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who helped found the Bird Strike Committee USA in 1991. Interest in this problem has grown, he said, with more than 400 people attending the group's annual meeting last October.

One of these booming bird species is the double-crested cormorant. In 1972 this species had only had 89 nests on the Great Lakes. Now there are 115,000.

Dolbeer said an increasing awareness of problems like pesticides, as well as the development of wildlife refuges, has helped these bird populations enormously.

"It's great," he said. "We've really been successful beyond our wildest dreams in restoring these populations." But while bird recovery may be a success story, people now need to learn how to manage the flocks, he said.

Along with increasing populations, many birds and other wildlife are feeling quite at home in urban settings. "They feel very comfortable going to airports to feed and rest," Dolbeer said.

Technology has also upped the stakes for wildlife. Modern jets have fewer and quieter engines than the roaring aircraft of the past, so wildlife may not be as easily startled or even aware of their presence.

Most airports use pyrotechnics and propane cannons to keep flocks away, as well as keeping the airport grounds less attractive for animal inhabitants by mowing tall grasses and covering ponds.

Falconry is another tool to prevent permanent residents, Dolbeer said. "It has a lot of sex appeal," he said. "It just sounds so cool."

At JFK, Adam said, during peak summer hours up to five falconers may be working with their charges 17 hours each day. Adam's company also uses recorded bird distress calls, pyrotechnics, and propane cannons to control problem birds.

While falconry can be an effective tool, Dolbeer said, it can't be used in every situation. The falcons and their falconers can't work in high winds or temperature extremes. And many airports have chosen alternative methods because of falconry's higher cost.

Each airport has its own problem species. John F. Kennedy Airport, situated on Jamaica Bay, is the stomping ground for gulls and migratory birds. Inland airports are havens for other species like Canada geese and red-tailed hawks. And the problems aren't all airborne. Coyotes, white-tailed deer, elk, and even alligators can cause problems on the ground.

As a result, wildlife management has to be tailored to each airport's needs. "Wildlife control at airports is part science and part art—and there's more than one way to do it," said Dolbeer.

The important thing, Dolbeer said, is to keep working at it. "It's like mowing the grass—it's something you have to continually work on."

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