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Could tall prairie grass help eliminate bird strikes?

Aug. 12, 2014, New York, N.Y. - When birds and planes collide, the results can be deadly. That's why airports around the world work hard to keep birds away, even resorting to shooting or poisoning large flocks. One Ohio airport is now experimenting with a new, gentler way to avoid bird strikes: planting tall prairie grass.


August 12, 2014
By Scott Mayerowitz The Associated Press

Topics

Heavy birds like geese — which cause the most damage to planes — are
believed to avoid long grasses because they fear predators might be
hiding within. So officials at Dayton International Airport are
converting up to 300 acres of the airfield's 2,200 non-aeronautical
acres into prairie grass. The goal is, by the end of this year, to plant
the tall grass under the takeoff and landing paths.

 

There are more than 10,000 airplane bird strikes
a year in the U.S. Most do little or no damage to the plane. The most
frequent problem is damage to the engines. The FAA estimates that such
damage costs the industry $950 million a year.

 

But some cause catastrophic damage. The forced
landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in 2009 — often
called The Miracle on the Hudson — occurred after Canadian geese were
ingested in both engines, causing the plane to lose power. Nobody died
when the plane glided into the river.

 

The passengers of Eastern Air Lines Flight 375
in 1960 weren't so lucky. The plane struck a flock of European starlings
during takeoff. All four engines were damaged and the aircraft crashed
in Boston harbour; 62 people died.

 

Globally, wildlife strikes have
killed more than 250 people and destroyed over 229 aircraft since 1988,
according to the Federal Aviation Administration. In the past 23 years,
there were 25 fatalities and 279 injuries linked to wildlife strikes in
the U.S.

 

A little more than half of bird strikes occur
from July to October, which is when young birds leave nests and fall
migration occurs.

 

Between 2001 and 2013, there were 218 wildlife
strikes at Dayton. The majority involved doves, pigeons, sparrows and
other small birds that didn't cause severe damage. The airport sees 56
commercial planes landing and taking off each day. Two-thirds of those
are smaller regional jets.

Airports often buy large parcels of adjacent
land to create a buffer zone and limit the number of local residents
affected by loud jet engines. Newer airports tend to be built next to
tracts of empty land.

 

Those large fields happen to make great rest stops
for migrating birds.

 

"We operate airports in a smaller and smaller
environment," says Terrence G. Slaybaugh, director of Dayton's airport.
"If we are going to protect the long term use of airports in an
increasingly populated area we need to be less intrusive and find ways
to contribute in a positive way to our surroundings."

 

The thick grass has other benefits: preventing
water runoff, taking carbon dioxide out of the air and requiring only
one mowing every three years.

 

Bird lovers are also excited about the use of non-lethal methods to keep birds away from the airport.

 

The airport's neighbour, the Aullwood Audubon
Center and Farm, has been working closely with aviation officials on the
tall grass project.

 

"It's a watershed moment. Our airport is embracing it," says Charity Krueger, executive director of the centre.

 

Still, Dayton airport has to prove that the tall
grass is the best approach. The tactic could backfire: in the past, the
FAA notes, such grasses have led to increased rodent populations, a
food source for raptors. Dayton's initial test will run for three years.

 

Preventing bird strikes often requires multiple approaches.

 

Airports need to plan out what type of trees and
landscaping they plant, selecting vegetation that doesn't produce
fruits or seeds attractive to birds. Waste from airport restaurants
needs to be properly secured and irrigation improved to avoid large
areas of standing water.

 

Then there are design factors.

 

Light posts can be fitted with anti-perching
devices. Tubular steel beams for terminals and hangars are also
much-less desirable as resting spots, compared to traditional I-beams
with flat surfaces.

 

Some locations take more drastic measures.

 

Airports use chemically-treated food baits that
birds eat and then send out distress call that frighten away other birds
in the flock. At other times, birds might be captured and relocated.
Then there are poisons and shotguns used to kill birds, or specialists
who are brought in to break eggs and remove nest materials. Such efforts
to cull bird populations often draw protests from animal rights groups
and bird watchers.

 

Dayton airport has had a policy for at least 14
years of not killing birds. But it does try to scare them away with loud
noises from non-lethal pyrotechnics and recordings of geese in
distress.

 

Maybe with this new grass, even that harassment
won't be necessary anymore. The industry has been looking for a solution
for a long time. After all, the FAA notes that the first reported bird
strike was by Orville Wright, back in 1905.