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Bird strikes on the rise at area airports

A large flock takes flight over an active

A large flock takes flight over an active runway as an airplane in the background prepares to depart Republic Airport in Farmingdale. (April 25, 2012) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Collisions between birds and airplanes have risen 31 percent at the New York City area's major airports in the past two years, according to federal government statistics.

Despite calls for improved wildlife management after a bird strike caused the "Miracle on the Hudson" water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009, collisions have climbed nearly 40 percent at Kennedy Airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration's Wildlife Strike Database.

Strikes have increased more than 32 percent at LaGuardia Airport and 16 percent at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, according to the database, which tracks reports of collisions between wildlife and planes, most of which involve birds.

Overall, wildlife strikes at New York's three major airports totaled 380 between April 1, 2009, and April 1, 2010, and airplanes had 499 collisions with wildlife between April 1, 2011, and April 1 of this year, statistics show.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three airports, and federal wildlife managers aren't doing enough to reduce bird strikes, said Steven D. Garber, an ecologist and former Port Authority wildlife biologist who left in the 1990s.

"Over the last four years at JFK, bird strikes have gone up," Garber said. "That means they all went to sleep."

The uptick in strikes has happened while the total number of flights has fallen off by a few thousand since 2009 at Kennedy and Newark airports, and only slightly increased at LaGuardia, Port Authority statistics show.

Two bird strikes in the past two weeks led to emergency landings at Kennedy and Westchester County airports.


Effort to reduce risk

Ron Marsico, a Port Authority spokesman, said the agency has reduced nesting areas, eliminated standing water that attracts wildlife and removed birds -- among other efforts -- to reduce the risk of bird strikes at its airports. And even though the total number of strikes is up, damage to planes is not, he said.

"While the number of overall reported bird strikes has increased nationwide following US Airways 1549, the vast majority have had no effect on flights," Marsico said.

The authority's three airports have at least one employee assigned to wildlife mitigation efforts each day.

Strikes at Long Island MacArthur Airport were down to 12 between April 1, 2011 to April 1 of this year from a high of 17 between April 1, 2009, and April 1 2010. But between 2009 and 2012, the number of flights at the Islip airport dropped by nearly 19 percent. At Westchester, plane collisions with wildlife have fallen from 24 in 2009-10 to 21 in 2011-12, the database shows.

Calls for increased efforts to reduce bird strikes grew after the Jan. 15, 2009, "Miracle on the Hudson," when former US Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger guided his crippled Airbus A-320 to land on the river after a flock of Canada geese knocked out both of the jet's engines. All 155 people aboard survived.

Last Tuesday, a JetBlue flight made an emergency landing at Westchester after it was hit by a goose on takeoff, cracking the jet's windshield. No one was injured. Five days earlier, birds knocked out one of a Delta jet's engines. The pilot declared an emergency and safely returned to Kennedy Airport with 179 passengers and crew on board.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture said they don't yet know what type of birds were sucked into the Delta jet's engine. The USDA's Wildlife Services investigates wildlife collisions, including bird strikes.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) last week introduced legislation to beef up the agriculture department's authority to remove Canada geese from U.S. Park Service land within five miles of Kennedy Airport.

Gillibrand's legislation would empower the USDA, which is under contract to the Port Authority, to round up geese from the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is on federal park land, within 90 days of a determination by the Federal Aviation Administration administrator that birds from the refuge are a hazard to aviation. Current laws require an environmental-impact statement before efforts can begin to remove birds from federal parklands, a process that can take years.

Gillibrand would also require the USDA to remove Canada geese before Aug. 1, during the molting season when geese remain on the ground. "We cannot and should not wait another day to act while public safety is at risk," she said in a statement.

Allen Gosser, the USDA wildlife division assistant director for New York, echoed the Port Authority in saying strikes that affected an aircraft's structural integrity, performance, or flight characteristics have not increased. He attributed the rise in reported bird strikes to more-vigilant reporting after the "Miracle on the Hudson."


Increased reporting cited

An FAA study done in 2009 after the "Miracle on the Hudson" found that bird strike reporting has increased from what it was in the 1990s. The study also found that the existing system of self-reporting by pilots and airlines was sufficient and that mandatory reporting wasn't needed.

"Most reporting comes from airlines," Gosser said. "We do training at airports all the time. We preach, 'Please report all bird strikes.' As scientists, it gives us more information -- what species, what altitude. We can look at ways to reduce that species."

At Kennedy, between April 2006 and April 2009, there were 13 bird strikes that caused serious damage or destroyed an aircraft, according to the Wildlife Strike Database. From April 2009 to April 2012, there have been four such strikes.

At LaGuardia, there were three damaging strikes during that period, including Flight 1549, and four between April 2009 and April of this year, according to the database.

"You'd assume the number of damaging strikes would go up if the number of strikes are going up," Gosser said.

Reports in the FAA's Wildlife Strike Database classify damage to planes as destroyed, as in Flight 1549; substantial damage, meaning the aircraft has to be taken out of service for repair; minor damaging, meaning a plane can still fly; uncertain damage; and no damage.

The database includes reports about all wildlife that come into conflict with airplanes, like deer or coyotes. More than 97 percent of the reports involve birds.

In the crowded New York area, airports operate in tight spaces bumped up against bird-attracting bodies of water -- Jamaica Bay near Kennedy or Flushing Bay around LaGuardia.

The National Transportation Safety Board noted in its investigation of Flight 1549 that within 10 miles of the three major airports there are many features that attract wildlife, "including landfills; waste transfer stations; city parks; golf courses; ponds; roosting areas, such as trees and shrubs; estuaries; tidal areas that expose food sources."

Large birds, like Canada geese, which weigh an average of 8 pounds, can pose the biggest threat to aviation, although gulls are most frequently the birds reported to be struck by planes, officials said.

After Sullenberger's landing, the USDA, New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the Port Authority began removing Canada geese from areas near Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. Reducing the number of birds can be undertaken in a variety of ways, including habitat modification, nest removal, trapping and shooting when necessary, according to the Port Authority.

In 2009, officials removed 1,235 geese from 17 sites within five miles of the airports. In 2010, 1,676 geese were removed from 19 sites within seven miles of the airports. Last year, 575 geese were removed from 11 city-owned sites and another 704 geese were removed from state, local and private lands within seven miles of the airports, according to Carol Bannerman, a spokeswoman for the USDA.


A look at wildlife strikes at local airports since Jan. 15, 2009, the day that US Airways Flight 1549 struck Canada geese after taking off from LaGuardia Airport, causing power failure in both the jet's engines and forcing Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 97.5 percent of the strikes involve birds.

John F. Kennedy

2009-10: 168

2010-11: 226

2011-12: 235



2009-10: 107

2010-11: 139

2011-12: 142


Newark Liberty

2009-10: 105

2010-11: 140

2011-12: 122


Long Island MacArthur

2009-10: 17

2010-11: 10

2011-12: 12

NOTE: Years are from April 1 to April 1

SOURCE: Federal Aviation Administration's Wildlife Strike Database

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