Killing 70,000 Birds Did Not Make New York Airports Safer
After a flock of Canada geese knocked out the engines of a US Airways jetliner in January 2009, pilot “Sully” Sullenberger was famously able to safely land the Airbus A320 on the Hudson River. What became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” was happy news, especially for the 155 passengers whose lives Sullenberger saved.
But it was terrible news for geese and other birds that migrate or make their homes near the three major airports in the New York City area. To prevent a similar incident from happening again, nearly 70,000 birds have been intentionally killed near John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports over the past eight years, the Associated Press reports.
The birds have either been shot by wildlife officials, or trapped first and then shot. The number of birds slaughtered includes approximately 35,000 European starlings, 28,000 seagulls, 6,000 brown-headed cowbirds, 4,500 mourning doves and 1,830 Canada geese.
Birds strike planes near these airports on a daily basis, the AP reports. The damage most often is to the birds, not to the planes or their passengers. From 2004 to April 2016, 249 birds damaged airplanes, according to Federal Aviation Administration data cited by the AP. Those birds included 54 seagulls, 12 osprey, 11 double-crested cormorants, 30 geese and 69 unknown species.
The first reported bird strike happened in 1905, when Orville Wright’s plane hit a bird over an Ohio cornfield. Since 1988, over 250 people have died as a result of birds striking planes.
Before the “Miracle on the Hudson,” JFK Airport already had in place what the AP called a “robust slaughter program.” The airport was built on a major migratory route for birds on the East Coast, and now the birds must pay the price.
After three snowy owls were killed at JFK in 2014, the nonprofit group Friends of Animals challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s approval of the culling of birds. But in January 2016, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the three airports. It gave the Port Authority the legal right to kill migratory birds in order to protect planes, with the exception of bald eagles, golden eagles and endangered or threatened species.
“When birds that pose little to no risk to airline safety can be lawfully murdered, like those three snowy owls killed in December 2014, it speaks loudly to the nature of our nation’s moral character,” Michael Harris, legal director for Friends of Animals, said after the ruling.
Bird Strikes on the Rise Since ‘Miracle on the Hudson’
Despite the killing of 70,000 birds, the incidents of birds striking planes in the New York City area have actually risen since 2009 – or at least reports of these incidents have increased due to more awareness. Before 2009, LaGuardia and Newark airports reported about 160 bird strikes annually. Since then, that number has almost doubled, to 300 bird strikes each year. None of those birds caused the planes to crash.
“There has to be a long-term solution that doesn’t rely so extensively on killing birds and also keeps us safe in the sky,” Jeffrey Kramer, with the nonprofit GooseWatch NYC, told the AP.
His suggested solution: using high-tech avian radar tracking to detect flocks. Wildlife officials do use some non-lethal, low-tech methods to keep birds at least five miles away from the airports. Some birds are trapped and relocated. Some are scared away using pyrotechnics and lasers. To change their habitat and discourage birds from nesting near the airports, grass has been planted and insects have been introduced.
Since the lethal methods haven’t proven to be effective in reducing bird strikes, instead of executing birds, what must be executed are more humane ways to ensure the safety of humans as well as birds when we share the sky.
Photo credit: Don DeBold