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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

J.F.K. Falcons

Air Date: Week of

It's a bird! It's a plane! And they don't mix very well. In collisions between the two, birds certainly get the worst of it. But aircraft have also been damaged , and sometimes humans die as well. It's a worldwide problem. In Israel, more fighter planes have been lost to birds than enemy fire. One way airports have dealt with the problem is to gun down birds who fly into their airspace. But over the last two years, one of the nation's busiest airports has been using Falcons as natural predators to scare sea gulls away. And it's reduced the number of shootings dramatically. From New York, Neal Rauch has this report.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's a bird! It's a plane! And they don't mix very well. In collisions between the two, birds certainly get the worst of it. But aircraft have also been damaged, and sometimes humans die as well. It's a world-wide problem. In Israel, more fighter planes have been lost to birds than to enemy fire. One way airports have dealt with the problem is to gun down birds that fly into their air space. But over the last 2 years, one of the nation's busiest airports has been using natural predators to scare seagulls away, and it's reduced the number of shootings dramatically.
From New York, Neal Rauch has this report:

RAUCH: Tucked into a corner of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport is a hawk house.

(Hawks' screeching cries fill the air)

RAUCH: The 20-foot by 48-foot mesh tent, called a "muse," is the home for 10 falcons and 4 hawks that work here.

(Louder screech of nearer bird. Man's voice: "This is Helga. She's a female peregrine-gyr hybrid." Helga screeches again.)

RAUCH: Ron Rollins is project manager for Falcon Environmental Services.

ROLLINS: What we have here is one of her favorites: (Helga screeches again, hungrily) ....leg of turkey.

(Helga munches noisily)

RAUCH: This is the third year the airport has used predators to keep birds, such as seagulls and geese, from colliding with aircraft.

(Aircraft engine revs up)

RAUCH: When it first opened, 50 years ago, as Idlewild International Airport, birds were not as severe a problem. The big propellers on the aircraft of the day took care of themselves. But that changed with the increased use of jets.

(Jet takes off)

RAUCH: The jet engine is a very, very sophisticated piece of equipment. Al Grazer is the general manager of aviation operations at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs JFK. He says a jet can easily be damaged when a bird gets sucked into the engine. Nationally there are some 2,200 reported bird strikes a year--always fatal for the birds; occasionally people are victims as well.

GRAZER: The latest incident that I know of was an incident with an AWACS aircraft in Alaska in 1995 where 24 people were killed. It was an ingestion with geese and the plane crashed with loss of life.

RAUCH: Fortunately, human fatalities due to bird collisions are rare, and there have been none at JFK. Nevertheless, there are 100 to 150 strikes a year here. The problem's especially bad because the airport sits right next to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

(Bird calls amidst jet engines)

RAUCH: The refuge is located along the Atlantic Coastal Flyway, a route migratory birds regularly travel. Artificial islands were added to the sanctuary's natural salt marsh during the 1950s to create a refuge with 2 bodies of fresh water. Over the past 40 years, 330 bird species had been identified. Among them is the only colony of laughing gulls in New York State.

(Laughing gulls call)

RAUCH: With black heads and white bodies, the laughing gulls were almost wiped out in the last century because their plumage was used for hats. The birds only started nesting in the refuge 2 decades ago and are still considered endangered. There are some 3,000 nesting pairs, and it's estimated that a couple of thousand more are in the area. Don Repee of the National Park Service is chief of resource management for the refuge. He says although the laughing gulls are one of the worst problems for the airport, it was herring gulls, the white-headed birds you often see on the beach, that forced airport officials to take action.

REPEE: In the 70s a plane had to abort a takeoff because it hit a bunch of gulls. No one was injured but they lost the plane. They put together this bird control unit.

GRAZER: We have dawn to dusk bird patrols with our own staff every day.

RAUCH: Aviation operations manager Al Grazer.

GRAZER: We try to make the airport as inhospitable as possible. And that's as simple as making sure that people don't feed birds, that they control their garbage. We go out and check all the runways in the morning before we start the major operation of the day. We use tapes which make distress calls to try to scare the birds.

(Taped distress call plays; fade to propane cannons)

GRAZER: We have propane cannons which are noisemakers situated all along the bay runway at Kennedy. If they're on the runway they'll drive the vehicle there to scare them. They have blanks, they have cracker shells and all kinds of noisemakers to scare them.


GRAZER: As a last resort they will shoot.

RAUCH: In 1991, 14,000 birds that wandered onto airport property had to be shot. But killing the birds simply made room for others to take their place. So a new or rather a very old strategy was tried.

(Helga chirps)


RAUCH: Ron Rollins takes Helga out of the back of his vehicle.

ROLLINS: Do you want to go fly? Go chase a gull. Come on.

(Helga flies off)

RAUCH: Ron Rollins has been a master falconer for over 30 years, one of about 3,500 certified falconers in the US. He started hunting with the predatory birds in his native Idaho when he was 13 years old.

(Rollins whistles)

ROLLINS: She'll range out about 50 yards, both sides, and then she'll turn and then as she comes back, she'll make a pass at the lure.

(Falcon cries)

RAUCH: The lure is a pigeon-sized leather pouch with wings and a piece of raw chicken thigh as bait. Attached to a 6-foot rope, Mr. Rollins swings it over his head, and Helga speeds toward the imitation bird.

ROLLINS: She's coming by about 80.

RAUCH: Falcons can swoop down toward their prey at 120 miles an hour or even faster. Helga takes aim at the lure, and after several near-misses, she grabs it.

ROLLINS: Not bad. Not bad at all. Nice fresh quail. That's what she does. Look at the gulls.

(Gulls call)

RAUCH: A flock of laughing gulls that had been at the edge of the airport a quarter mile away have taken flight. The idea is not for the falcons and hawks to actually catch and eat or even chase the birds. Ron Rollins says just seeing the predator sends the vital message.

(Gulls call)

ROLLINS: The falcon just totally alarms the gulls to a visual attack. They're calling out to everybody, all their cohorts, to move out, there's a predator in the area. Seems to work. They're all gone. (Laughs) Oh, yeah, she likes that quail.

(Helga munches)

ROLLINS: Oh, yummy.

RAUCH: JFK is the only major commercial airport in the US to use falconry, although military airbases employ it as do all types of airports in Canada and Europe. Despite its success at JFK, airport officials still found it necessary to shoot 2,000 birds last year. Ultimately, the Port Authority would like to move the gull colony out of the preserve altogether, but the bird sanctuary's Don Repee is hopeful that JFK's comprehensive bird control program will make such a draconian move unnecessary.

REPEE: In the last few years, bird strikes have decreased, so I think that we're on the right track. Ultimately, we hope that we can perhaps even eliminate the shooting program.

RAUCH: The 14 falcons and hawks will continue their patrols of Kennedy International Airport until the first of November. After that the airport's bird problems ease, as most of the migratory creatures fly south for the winter. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.



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