Feathered nuisances face old foes on JFK runways

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That’s why the wildlife management team at John F. Kennedy International Airport is working to...

By Courtney Dentch

Between getting to the airport, checking baggage, clearing ever-tightening security and making connections, passengers have enough to worry about when flying.

That’s why the wildlife management team at John F. Kennedy International Airport is working to make sure travelers have one less thing to worry about – birds.

Although many flyers barely give a thought to gulls, sparrows and the other feathered friends that could cause problems for the plane and its passengers, the Port Authority is using some unconventional methods to keep the birds from alighting on a runway. Among these is a faithful crew of 10 falcons and five hawks.

The birds of prey are just one tool the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey employs to clear avian visitors, which could cause severe damage to aircraft and could injure and even kill passengers and crews, said Laura Francouer, a wildlife biologist for Airport Operations at JFK.

“It depends on where the bird hits the plane,” she said about the potential damage. “If you had a strike where the bird hits the windshield, the pilot can get hit.”

JFK began keeping track of bird strikes, or collisions between flocks of birds and aircraft, in 1979, when two gulls were ingested into a plane’s engine as it was taking off from the airport, Francouer said. The flight was aborted and all 130 people aboard were able to make it off the plane before the craft caught fire, she said.

More than 5,700 bird strikes were reported for civil aircraft in the United States in 2001, according to the Bird Strike Committee USA, a national organization that collects data on bird strikes. Although most bird strikes do not cause human injury, more than 130 people have been killed worldwide as a result of bird strikes since 1995, according to the Bird Strike Committee USA.

The strikes can also cause damage to the airplanes, requiring engines to be cleaned and rebuilt or windshields to be replaced, Francouer said.

“Any time a bird hits the aircraft it can cause damage,” she said, pointing out that it can cost up to $1 million to take an engine apart.

Due to its location next to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, the airport is engaged in a constant battle with animals, and especially birds, that seek to use search for food at the airport, Francouer said.

For example, gulls will pick up clams from a beach and drop them on the runways to crack them open; other birds will hunt for lunch on the grassy patches between the tarmacs which grasshoppers like to call home; and swallows love the bay berries that grow around the airport, she said.

To combat the influx of birds, the Port Authority uses a number of methods to scare the birds off the airport, and that’s where the falcons come in, Francouer said. The falcons and hawks that the airport employs are known throughout the bird world as hunters, and as soon as they are seen in the air, swooping as they look for prey, smaller birds such as gulls and swallows will fly away, calling to others to do the same.

“It’s that kind of flying that scares the other birds,” said Stuart Rossell, of Falcon Environmental Services, a falconry consulting company contracted by the PA. “It’s like a man walking down the street with a gun. It’s just a bad sign.”

Although each bird is flown once every day to remind other birds that the airport is a dangerous place to be, the falcons do not actually hunt the birds, Rossell said.

“You have to teach a bird to hunt,” he said.

After flying and swooping for about 10 minutes, trying to catch the lure swung by the falconer, the falcon is rewarded with quail, just as a dog is given treats for doing tricks. The falcons start flying about a half hour before sunrise and stop just after sunset, Francoeur said.

But the falcons “just tend to be the glamorous side” of bird control, Rossell said. The Port Authority spends between $1 million and $2 million on bird control a year at Kennedy Airport, Francoeur said. Other weapons include small fireworks and noisemakers, propane cannons that sound a loud bang about every 15 minutes and insect control to limit food for the birds, she said.

“We’re trying to make the environment as unattractive as possible,” Francoeur said. “The more you keep them moving the more annoyed they get.”

And that’s just what the airport is trying to do – annoy the birds so they will leave.

“The Port Authority is very serious about bird control out here,” Rossell said.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:13 pm, October 10, 2011
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