How Do Airports Prevent Bird Strikes?

Bird strikes are quite often an unavoidable consequence of human activity around areas that are popular with wildlife. Whilst bird strikes are not all that common, they do happen and can have dangerous consequences. As a result, many airports around the world must factor wildlife management programs into their operations. Here’s how they work…

delta bird flock
How do airports prevent bird strikes? Photo: Getty Images

Why do bird strikes happen at airports?

In the eight-year period between 2008 and 2015, the International Civil Aviation Authorization (ICAO) recorded a total of 97,751 reported global bird strikes. During that period, the organization saw this figure more than double in comparison to the period between 2001 and 2007.

The majority of these reports came from the Europe and North Atlantic regions as well as from North America. Over half of these occurrences happened during the day (68%) whilst the most common points at which they happened were:

  • During the approach (33% of cases)
  • During take-off (31% of cases)
  • Upon landing (26% of cases).

Needless to say, in order to ensure the highest levels safety for aircraft, crew and passengers airports need to work with wildlife management to control the frequency of birdstrikes.

Air Canada approach bird
Bird strikes happen most frequently in the day and during take-off and landing. Photo: Barry Skeates via Flickr

Ultimately, these unfortunate wildlife collisions happen due to inter-speciated disparities. Birds seek to make their homes and feed in areas that humans have designed for aviation. When it comes to solving this conflict, there is no one fix-all solution. However, there are a number of proven techniques that airports employ in their wildlife management programs.

Prevention through habitat management

The first, and probably most preferable, method of managing bird strike is reducing the attractiveness of airport spaces for nesting or hungry birds. Due to the areas of undisturbed grassland and the benefit of airports being near water for noise pollution reasons, airports can literally be breeding grounds for birds. The conditions are attractive and the lack of predators also provides a safe haven for these animals. If they safely manage to cross the airport, of course.

At London Heathrow, officials have and continue to invest in research in order to determine exactly what kinds of birds are native to the area and how they respond to different deterrents. Heathrow primarily uses a specific technique of habitat management. It keeps the grass in the airfield between 6-8 inches in order to prevent birds from sheltering there. It says:

“With reduced visibility, [the birds] feel vulnerable to predators and find it difficult to feed on insects because access to the soil is impeded by the long grass. It should also be noted that Heathrow helps manage over 170 hectares of biodiversity areas around the airport, ensuring the habitats for over 2,000 species of flora and fauna are maintained.”

If that doesn’t work, the airport also uses speakers to project distress calls around Heathrow in order to prevent birds from thinking it’s a safe place to land.

Brussels Airport Runway grass
Grass, like this at Brussels Airport, can look attractive to birds. Photo: Lucash via Wikimedia Commons

Other methods of managing habitats to prevent birds from crossing airports are:

  • Covering open water to prevent birds from landing there
  • Using chemicals to manage insect populations to diminish food sources
  • Working with wildlife authorities to encourage birds to nest away from airports.

Prevention through population management

Another method of mitigating the risk of bird strikes is slightly more ruthless. Unfortunately, whilst prevention methods have the best intentions, they are unable to prevent 100% of birdstrike cases. The potential risks posed by these bird strikes are so great that it has forced airports to look at other ways of managing their bird populations.

Whilst JFK International Airport in New York uses the aforementioned habitat techniques first, it also captures birds using various methods, killing them if necessary. The reason for this is to create an immediate removal of danger for aircraft.

Flying falcon
JFK has previously used falcons to scare off other birds. Photo: Andre Engels via Wikimedia Commons

In an environmental impact statement from 2012, JFK Airport states:

“Nonlethal and lethal wildlife control measures include frightening devices, nest and egg destruction, shooting, and capture and euthanasia. [These methods have] been augmented by the supplemental on-airport shooting program and, until 2011, work by a falconry company. In the supplemental on-airport shooting program, 2-5 trained specialists stationed along the southern perimeter of the airport use shotguns with non-toxic shot to shoot gulls attempting to fly over the airport…From 1996-2010, a contractor flew falcons and other raptors and using pyrotechnics to scare birds away from the Aircraft Operations Area during three months in the summer when bird strike risks are greatest.”

However, despite these methods of prevention, bird strikes still continue to occur. Of course, it is impossible for airports to completely eradicate their risk from bird strikes. But, should more be done and is this the right approach?

What do you think? Do you agree with the techniques described above? Have your say in the comments.