“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” — Leonardo da Vinci
The root for “aviation” is the Latin word “avis” and even a casual knowledge of the Wright Brothers divulges that much of their early research involved the study of birds. In spite of that common origin, birds and planes are having trouble coexisting. Below are two stories involving two different, but both sad, perspectives of this co-occupancy of the air—one in which aviators tried to help birds and the second involves the response to birds as safety threats.
Operation Migration was an extraordinary application of ultralight aircraft in an effort to improve the lot of Whooping Cranes. Its pilots acted as surrogate parents. They guided captive-hatched and imprinted Whooping cranes along a planned migration route beginning in Wisconsin and ending in Florida. The tales of the extraordinary efforts by people on the ground, in transit and at the destination shows man’s dedication to this species. Their research, preparation and operations are an inspiration to all. The journey, depicted below and described here, shows the amazing tenacity and ingenuity of the OM team.
Unfortunately, after 15 years of these efforts, the US Fish & Wildlife Service decided that it will “no longer support the use of ultralight aircraft to lead young whooping cranes on their fall migration to Florida.” The scientific conclusion is as follows:
“Since 2001, nearly 250 whooping cranes have been released in Wisconsin. About 93 are currently alive, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. However, only 10 chicks have survived to fledge…Many first-time parents are known to abandon their nests. One reason is due to nettlesome black flies at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. But biologists have determined that other factors are probably also at play…Experts in crane biology and other fields have concluded that the use of aircraft and other human interaction are having a negative effect on the birds. Another worrisome technique is the use of costumed humans who help care for chicks. The practices apparently are not allowing the birds to imprint parenting skills they need to raise their own chicks.”
It is extremely disappointing that creative use of aviation has not succeeded, but the team at Operation Migration has not yet given up. In addition to the technical behavioral issues, the loss of the USW&W financial support may be another major setback for the effort is quite expensive.
The second case is even more distressing. In the case of Friends of Animals v. Clay, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the Port Authority has the freedom under a federal regulation to remove migratory birds near John F. Kennedy International Airport because of the threat they pose to airline safety. The Judges included in their decision a number of examples of the hazards which birds pose to aircraft:
- a 1975 collision between herring gulls and a DC‐10, which caused the aircraft’s engine to explode and the aircraft itself to catch fire…
- …a 1995 collision between two Canada geese and a Concorde jet, which caused “major damage” to the aircraft…
- …describing a 2009 incident in which a pilot was compelled to land a jetliner on the Hudson River after it collided with a flock of geese…
The PANYNJ applied to the United States Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for issuance of a “depredation permit” to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which authorizes the emergency “take” of migratory birds that threaten to interfere with aircraft at John F. Kennedy International Airport (the named defendant, William Clay, in his official capacity as a Deputy Administrator in the Department of Agriculture). The court ruled, “In sum, we hold that FWS did not run afoul of § 21.41 in issuing to the Port Authority the 2014 depredation permit.”
Somehow JFK is next to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. It is home to one of the best places in New York City to observe migrating species. With more than 330 bird species—nearly half the species in the Northeast—sighted at the refuge over the last 25 years. It is hard to comprehend how some planner permitted a locus for birds to be next to a huge bird colony.
The aviation community has developed strategies to mitigate the negative impact of the interaction of these two flying communities. The Audubon Society has written a very informative, balanced paper on remedial tactics. Creative landscaping alterations around the airport, other positive tactics and an ACRP compendium of preventative actions provide alternatives. As aviation moves forward in airport development and planning, coexisting with birds should be a priority.
The beauty of flight is never more evident than in this video. Hopefully it will help all involved in aviation to be conscious of the need and value of birds to society.