Battling bird strikes at Westchester airport

Matt Palumbo, a Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist

Matt Palumbo, a Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist at Westchester County Airport, shoots a pyrotechnic launcher on the airport grounds to try to prevent birds from being struck by airplanes. (June 4, 2012) (Credit: Nancy Siesel)

The enemy is perched atop a camera security pole on the outer edge of a rain-soaked runway at Westchester County Airport.

Matthew Palumbo spies him and within seconds fires off a single round from a tiny gun. The red-tailed hawk atop the pole flies off into the distance, scared off by a whistling pyrotechnic flare Palumbo just shot into the sky.

"That should spook him off," Palumbo says.

Palumbo, 29, is part of a team of 350 wildlife biologists deployed at the nation's airports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure planes taking off or landing don't have catastrophic encounters with their winged predecessors.

During the past two years, planes and birds have gotten closer than they ought to 40 times at Westchester County Airport -- a fraction of the thousands such incidents that occur at the nation's airports every year, causing an estimated $615 million in damage to commercial and private aircraft and an additional $100 million to military aircraft.

From 1998 to 2009, there were 230 deaths and 210 airplanes destroyed that were blamed on bird strikes, U.S. Department of Agriculture records show.

But it was one near-catastrophe in January 2009 that cemented the issue in the public's consciousness. That was when Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was forced to land his US Airways jet in the Hudson River after two engines were knocked out by geese shortly after takeoff.

In April, a JetBlue flight was forced to make an emergency landing at Westchester County Airport after it was struck by two geese, one of which hit a windshield and obscured the pilot's cockpit view.

Palumbo works closely with Dan Scanlan, the airport's operations supervisor, to try to make sure that doesn't happen again.

At an airport like Westchester's, which is surrounded by golf courses, compost facilities as well as the Kensico Reservoir, that's no easy task. Most bird strikes occur below 3,000 feet, within a five-mile radius of the airport, they say.

Each day, Scanlan and a team of 12 make their way around the airport, looking for signs of wildlife. Each observation is radioed back to the control tower so it can be charted in a grid of the airport's 700-acre grounds.

It is a constant game of cat and mouse -- or man and bird -- as the airport workers try to anticipate wildlife's next move.

That means trying to figure out what food source has brought them to the airport.

"You've got to deal with the reason predators and raptors are here," Palumbo says. "We've tried to reduce the prey base so they can go and find it somewhere else."

Grass is trimmed to a manageable height so birds don't use it to nest or loaf. Brush areas are cut so that roaming wildlife like coyotes don't have a place to hide before pouncing on their prey.

Of particular concern are younger or fledgling birds, especially during the summer and fall when they're most abundant, Palumbo says. "They don't know the hazards out there," he says. "They're ignorant as to the ways of the bird world."

Every bird strike is carefully charted and recorded in a Federal Aviation Administration database.

Feathers of birds recovered from the "snarge" -- wildlife biologist talk for bird splats -- are packaged up and sent off to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. There, researchers identify the bird from feathers or other remains.

The information helps Palumbo know exactly who the enemy is.

For instance, on May 1, 2011, a red-tailed hawk like the one Palumbo scared away caused minor damage to a private jet, the FAA records show. Mourning doves, American kestrels, European starlings and Canada geese all have crashed into planes on takeoff or landing at Westchester, the records show.

Techniques are being adjusted every day.

Lethal force is employed only when necessary. Palumbo is a marksman accredited by the National Rifle Association.

Dispersal guns like the "bird bomb" or the whistling flare that forced the hawk to scamper work for a brief time, but birds will come back once they know the danger is past, Scanlan says.

"It's like having noisy neighbors or living by the railroad tracks," says the Iowa-bred Scanlan, 28. "You get used to the noise. You have to stay one step ahead of them ... It's like moving cows. You've got to push them in a certain way."

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