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Opinion

Bird-strike prevention is vital near 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

Despite recent, high-profile collisions between birds and commercial airplanes in the area, strikes that actually damage aircraft remain relatively rare. That's fortunate, but making sure it stays that way will require vigilance in managing wildlife near airports and a technological approach to the growing problem of migrating geese.

Two bird strikes in the past two weeks, forcing emergency landings at Kennedy and Westchester County airports, are good reason for renewed attention to the life-threatening hazard that hit the public's radar in January 2009. That's when Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger pulled off the "Miracle on the Hudson," safely landing an Airbus A-320 on the river with 155 people aboard after Canada geese knocked out the jet's engines. More diligent reporting of bird strikes is one legacy of that extraordinary incident. The number of reported strikes at the area's three major airports rose to 499 in the 12 months ending April 1, up from 380 the previous year. Nationally, about one strike in 100 actually damages a plane.

So the danger is real, and legislation from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to expedite a required environmental evaluation needed to clear the way for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reduce the number of Canada geese in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge should help. The refuge near JFK is on federal parkland, and since many birds are protected by federal migratory bird law, killing them requires federal permission.

Cutting through the red tape should augment traditional wildlife management efforts near JFK and LaGuardia that seek to make the habitat outside the refuge as unattractive as possible to birds.

The techniques include reducing standing water, controlling insects, cutting back grasses, removing nests and birds, using noise and pyrotechnics to scare them away, and even shooting birds when necessary.

Those approaches effectively limit resident bird populations. But that alone won't solve the problem. It will take more to cope with migrating birds that fly through critical areas for approach and departure to winter here. There, scientists are looking to technology for solutions.

When most planes were propeller driven, they were noisy and slow. Birds could detect them and get out of the way. That's not so easy with today's much faster jets. And bird populations are up, owing to advances in environmental protection laws, such as the Clean Water and Air acts and the Endangered Species Act. Bird-detecting radar could help air traffic controllers route planes away from flocks.

And fortunately, "Birds are not suicidal. They don't want to get hit by planes," said Richard Dolbeer, an ornithologist and retired USDA biologist who created the Federal Aviation Administration wildlife strike database. So changes in aircraft lighting might help, too. Most birds see in the ultraviolet range, so putting lights in that spectrum on the leading edge of airplane wings, or pulsating on landing gear, might make the aircraft more visible to birds and help them avoid being hit.

As long as birds and planes share the skies, collisions won't be eliminated. But we can do more to help the two safely coexist.

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