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The Air Up There Podcast

Flora, Fauna, and Flight

Season 2, Episode 4
Published: Friday, March 12, 2021

Wildlife strikes are on the rise, with birds accounting for about 97 percent of reported strikes. Factors like an increase in passenger traffic, the introduction of much quieter engines on newer planes, and a large increase in wildlife populations have all led to a rise in the probability of wildlife strikes both at airports and in the air.

In this episode, we'll hear from three professionals about the work that they do to help prevent these strikes and keep birds and those aboard aircraft safe.

Read the show notes on our blog.

Flora, Fauna, and Flight

Flora, Fauna, and Flight

Transcript

Dominique Gebru:
You're listening to The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation and aerospace. I'm Dominique Gebru.

Allen Kenitzer:
And I'm Allen Kenitzer. Today's episode is about a specific intersection of nature and technology. And we should warn listeners, part of today's episodes are a little bit gross.

Allen Kenitzer:
Our show is called The Air Up There. And while we're mostly talking about aircraft and spacecraft, those aren't the only things you'll find in our airspace.

Mel Faust:
We had hundreds of vultures and hawks, and small birds and doves, and eagles and osprey. And all kinds of stuff.

Dominique Gebru:
That was Mel Faust, an FAA air traffic system specialist. We're going to hear more from Mel later in this episode, but in that clip he's describing a few of the birds he strives to keep away from a radar tower down in Melbourne, Florida.

Dominique Gebru:
When it comes to birds and airspace, there's a balance to be struck. Both for the safety of the birds, and for the safety of people on board aircraft.

Allen Kenitzer:
In today's episode, we're talking about wildlife hazard mitigation. Or more simply, how to minimize wildlife strikes to aircraft. Our listeners might remember the Miracle on the Hudson. In 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of geese shortly after take-off, losing all engine power and making an emergency landing in the Hudson River.

Dominique Gebru:
We'd like to emphasize that bird strikes of this nature are quite rare, but they can cause serious damage or injury to those onboard the aircraft and are almost always fatal for the birds.

Dominique Gebru:
In recent years, factors like an increase in passenger traffic, the introduction of much quieter engines on newer planes, and a large increase in wildlife populations have all led to an increase in the probability of wildlife strikes.

Dominique Gebru:
We've also seen an increase in reporting, thanks to Education Outreach. There were more than 17,000 wildlife strikes at U.S. airports in 2019, and the FAA is actively working to mitigate those risks.

Allen Kenitzer:
The agency has experts who address bird strikes from all angles. From habitat management to airport planning and tracking, the FAA partners with the USDA's Airport Wildlife Hazards program, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prescott Center for Wildlife and Aviation.

Allen Kenitzer:
They work together on research and development around wildlife strikes in conjunction with the airport safety R&D team at the FAA's tech center. Later in today's episode, you'll hear from a researcher at the Smithsonian who works directly with the FAA to identify species from bird remains.

Dominique Gebru:
But first, let's go to an interview with an expert at the FAA. Our reporter Jasmine Jackson met with one of the wildlife biologists who works with airports to prevent wildlife strikes.

Jasmine Jackson:
Amy Anderson is a wildlife biologist who works with the FAA's Office of Airports. I sat down with Amy in a Zoom interview to learn more about how she works with the agency, and works with other groups outside of the FAA to mitigate wildlife strikes in aviation.

Amy Anderson:
There are two of us, wildlife biologists, in the whole department of transportation, actually. We're a very unique, very small group. And we write and interpret policy and guidance for airports to assist with reducing their wildlife hazards at airports.

Amy Anderson:
We also work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I'm actually on the Council for the Conservation of Migratory Birds, which is several different agencies together on this council who their mission is the conservation of migratory birds. Of course, considering that 97% of all reported wildlife strikes are birds, we are very interested in reducing the number of strikes significantly.

Amy Anderson:
Of course, because we want to keep the airspace safe and our customers safe. But also because we do want to save the wildlife as well. I would love to look at it from both sides and say, we're doing a benefit for both the natural world and the public.

Jasmine Jackson:
Amy's work is key data.

Amy Anderson:
One thing, I think, it's very important to mention. We have the National Wildlife Strike Database, which the FAA funds and the U.S. Department of Agriculture manages for us. We try to extol the importance of reporting any wildlife strikes.

Amy Anderson:
And that could be airports, airlines, pilots, qualified airport wildlife biologists at the airports, because all of that data regarding strikes … It could be what types of birds are struck most at a specific airport, or what bird strikes are most damaging. All of that information is so important for us to have, to make informed decisions about airport management.

Jasmine Jackson:
A major part of preventing wildlife strikes is figuring out what exactly makes wildlife want to be near airports in the first place.

Amy Anderson:
Think about an airport. An airport, you think … You imagine it to basically look the same, most of them. You think, well, there's grass. There's the runways and taxiways and some buildings. But every airport is actually so very different, because airports in the Southwest, they might not have grass. It's all sand or rocks.

Amy Anderson:
And every part of that airport could attract different types of wildlife, because the wildlife are there looking for what they need to survive. Water, cover, food, nesting areas. At each airport, we need to take that into consideration. What is here at the airport that's attracting the most hazardous species?

Amy Anderson:
Because we recognize that not every species is going to be an issue. If they're small woodland birds, they're going to stay in the forested areas, and not so much out in front of the planes. If you're looking at birds that are attracted to the grasslands and things, then you're looking at something that could be a lot more hazardous, like a Canada goose, or larger birds like that. Making the airport as unattractive as possible to these types of birds that are coming there to get the food, the water, that is our goal.

Jasmine Jackson:
As a wildlife biologist, Amy knows that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to preventing bird strikes near airports.

Amy Anderson:
It's like a puzzle. And I get so excited to learn about each individual airport because … Okay, where are these birds coming from? What are they being attracted to? Oh, they all fly in the mornings. I wonder where they're going? And finding that and just learning all about that ecology and the patterns.

Amy Anderson:
During migration, it becomes a completely different world, because then you've got the flyways during migration. You've got birds that are never there all the other times of the year. You have to be prepared and know that April through the end of May or whatever, there's going to be a lot of different types of birds flying through. Again, some of it's predictable, but not everything. Because it's wildlife.

Jasmine Jackson:
As far as the frequent bird strikes are, the National Wildlife Strike Database has shown a year-over-year increase. The numbers alone don't tell the full story.

Amy Anderson:
Even though strike reporting has increased, the damaging strikes have actually decreased. We attribute that directly to the fact that all Part 139 airports have conducted wildlife hazard assessments, and they have wildlife hazard management plans at their airports.

Amy Anderson:
They have a qualified airport wildlife biologist who have conducted a 12-month assessment to determine what the hazards are, what habitat is attractive at each airport. And using that information, the airports have developed a management plan. That will include habitat modification, active harassment, and making the animals uncomfortable that do come there. All of that is incorporated into this plan.

Amy Anderson:
And since the airports have those plans, we have seen that decrease in damaging strikes. The damaging strikes have been decreased specifically more within the airport environment. We call the airport environment anything less than 1500 feet AGL, because the majority of strikes occur lower than 1500 feet.

Amy Anderson:
That data is so important, because it has shown us that those wildlife hazard management plans within the airport environment are working. They are making sure that the most hazardous, potentially damaging wildlife are moved away from the airport. And there's less chance or risk of aircraft striking those more damaging species.

Jasmine Jackson:
That was Amy Anderson, wildlife biologist in the FAA's Office of Airports.

Amy Anderson:
Amy says that while wildlife aren't always predictable, we've seen a promising decrease in the number of bird strikes, in part, thanks to data. Which makes a lot of sense, because the FAA under the leadership of our administrator, Steve Dixon, really makes data a priority in everything we do.

Allen Kenitzer:
You're right about that, Dominique. Next, we're going to hear an interview with a researcher who helps collect data about wildlife strikes. Let's turn it back to Jasmine Jackson who spoke with Dr. Carla Dove, a researcher and forensic ornithologist.

Allen Kenitzer:
Dr. Dove is the program manager at the Smithsonian's Feather Identification Lab. Through her work, Dr. Dove analyzes bird remains called, "snarge," to gather data about bird strikes.

Jasmine Jackson:
Carla, it is not lost on me that your last name is Dove and that you specialize in bird strikes. And I'm sure I'm not the first or last person to point that out.

Carla Dove:
Yes. That is something that comes up probably weekly. But the good thing is people in the field that we work with actually remember me by my name, and remember to submit their bird strikes to us, because they think it's cool working with someone named Dr. Dove.

Carla Dove:
A lot of people think it's odd that the Smithsonian has such a close relationship with the FAA, but we have a large research collection behind the scenes. Our role really is sort of as a library. Our collection is somewhere around 620,000 museum specimens of birds. A bird strike is an event when a bird and an aircraft collide.

Carla Dove:
As you can imagine, the bird usually is not the winner in this situation. But the identification of the species of that bird is the fundamental step in preventing bird strikes from happening. Because if you know the species of bird that's causing the problems, then you know where that bird likes to live. You know what it likes to eat, what it likes to drink.

Carla Dove:
You know when it's here. Is it a migratory bird? Or is it a bird that's only here for a certain part of the year? Knowing the species of bird helps the airport managers, the wildlife biologists on the field, modify that habitat, so that it's not attractive to the birds. And it prevents bird strikes from happening.

Carla Dove:
Now we have this wonderful database. It's called the Barcode of Life Database. It allows us to extract DNA from unknown samples that we get from airports all over the country, and run those sequences through an online database, and get matches for pieces of, we call it, "snarge."

Carla Dove:
Snarge is bird ick. It's the stuff they scrape out of the engines. It's blood, it's tissue. It's bird ickiness. And getting that ickiness to us allows us to use this DNA technology, which hasn't been around that long … Using that technology to identify species levels of birds that are striking aircraft.

Carla Dove:
The FAA is collaborating closely with the Smithsonian, but also with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and their research facilities to conduct top of the line research right now to prevent these things from happening.

Jasmine Jackson:
Let's talk a little bit more about snarge, which sounds gross, because it is. When there is a bird strike, is all of that information and data collected sent directly to the Smithsonian? Or is it sent to a group? Is it the USDA? Is it the FAA?

Jasmine Jackson:
For you guys to be able to interpret it, and then identify what type of bird was attracted to this area, and how we can create pathways and improve airspace that doesn't negatively impact these birds.

Carla Dove:
Well, what I can say is that all bird strike identification and all bird strike work begins with snarge. Snarge is the bird ick that we find on the aircraft. It's scraped off. It's sent to the Smithsonian Institution. We do the identifications. We do the species-level identifications in over 90% of the cases.

Carla Dove:
Some of the cases, we can't get DNA. We can't find diagnostic microscopic characters. Maybe we can tell you what group of birds it is. Is it a duck? Is it a pigeon? But the species level is what we strive for. Once we have the species level, that information goes into a huge database. It's called the Wildlife Strike Database.

Carla Dove:
That's managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FAA, and that information is publicly available to everyone. All airports all over this country can log into that database and find out what birds are being struck at what airports. This information is huge.

Carla Dove:
It allows people on individual airfields to see what birds have been struck there in the past. The database has airports from all over the country, so people can log in if they're flying somewhere and they want to know what the bird risk may be at that airport. They can find that information out.

Carla Dove:
It's all sponsored by the FAA. And the FAA also provides a free service to all airports out there for bird strike identification. Any airport, GA, big air, whatever, can submit remains to the Smithsonian free of charge for identification purposes.

Carla Dove:
Once we have the identification, that data goes into the database, and people can use it for multiple reasons. Airports use it for wildlife management. Engineers use the data when they're designing new aircraft to determine what weights of birds can be acceptable for what parts and engines in the aircraft. Sometimes people use it for modeling purposes. The data's there for whatever it's needed for.

Jasmine Jackson:
Why is it important to know what species of bird has been struck by an aircraft?

Carla Dove:
Knowing the species of birds that are struck by aircraft is paramount. It is the fundamental step in reducing this risk. If you know that you have a problem on your airfield with mallard ducks, let's say, for example.

Carla Dove:
Then you can go out to the airfield, mitigate that habitat, make that habitat less attractive for these species to come into the airport, to rest, eat, to do whatever. Keep it off the airport.

Carla Dove:
95% of the bird strikes occur on takeoff and landing. Knowing the species of birds that are problematic on that airport is fundamental to reducing this risk.

Jasmine Jackson:
Why is it important to know what species of bird have been struck by aircraft?

Carla Dove:
A lot of people didn't know about bird strikes until US Airways Flight 1549 with Sully went into the Hudson River in New York. And some people may be even too young to remember that now, but that was a major event. Because this was a major airline, with past a hundred and some passengers on board, that went into the river because of bird strikes to Canada geese.

Carla Dove:
Now, knowing that they were Canada geese was very important. In that case, there were several species of ducks and geese and waterfowl in the New York area that were possible suspects. Identifying a species of birds, letting us know that it was Canada geese that were the problem in that aircraft crash was very helpful to the airport biologists on the field, because now they have a species. They have a culprit.

Carla Dove:
They know that Canada geese are problem on their airfield. They've been working for years trying to reduce those populations of Canada geese around there. They know they're hazardous. You're not going to prevent every bird strike. But working together with the Smithsonian, with the USDA, with the individual airports, you can greatly reduce the amount and the damage that occurs because of bird strikes.

Carla Dove:
Bird strikes are always going to happen. When birds fly and planes fly, it happens all the time. The amount of damage and the number of damaging strikes is definitely being reduced, because of the efforts through the FAA and other government agencies.

Dominique Gebru:
Allen, Dr. Dove echoed a lot of the same sentiments we heard from Amy. Ultimately, gathering and analyzing data can have a significant impact on safety when it comes to bird strikes. Okay. We've talked a little bit about wildlife hazard mitigation at facilities, but let's go to a real example.

Allen Kenitzer:
Today's final interview takes us to a radar facility in Melbourne, Florida, where Mel Faust, an air traffic system specialist was dealing with a bit of a vulture problem. When it comes to wildlife, aircraft strikes aren't the only challenge our transportation sector faces.

Callie Dosberg:
That's right, Allen, and vultures are big birds. Big birds can do a lot of damage. Our reporter Callie Dosberg spoke with Mel via Zoom, but I think this interview is really going to transport our listeners to the middle of a field in coastal Florida.

Mel Faust:
I joke around that it's like, "One day, all of this will be yours." It's like nothing matters. Most of the area is this ranch that goes all the way around us, which is what the FAA leases. The north part, there's a sod farm. Because of the sod farm, they need all that water, so they have canals. That's what brings in the gators, the otters, the water moccasins, whatever else wants to come in.

Mel Faust:
They follow that water in. We used to have the one gator who used to like to hang out under our air conditioner while we had the gate open. We have to be careful about what we have open, because all kinds of critters come in. But we have quite a menagerie of wildlife out here. It keeps you on your toes.

Callie Dosberg:
Sounds like it. Oh, my goodness. We know that bird strikes can be a real safety issue for pilots and for passengers. I understand that you had quite an interesting experience with birds. Can you tell us a little bit about what was happening?

Mel Faust:
Well, because we're about a hundred foot … Our tower is about a hundred foot straight up, out in the middle of nowhere. The vultures and the hawks and the eagles, everything, like to hang out and be able to look out over the surrounding area. But, of course, that creates its own problems because of the bird feces.

Mel Faust:
It goes all over the vehicles, all over their equipment, all over the sidewalks, everything. And we're talking hundreds. At one time, we had hundreds of vultures here. We've tried everything and anything to abate the problem from using these fake owls that hang up there … Supposedly, that would cause them to go off, because we had hundreds of them.

Mel Faust:
Of course, you have some that get ill and they die. So, we would pick up one of the dead vultures, put a rope around it. This is according to the Florida Wildlife, I want to disclose that. They said, "Don't harm any of them, because they're endangered." But you can, if you find a dead one, use that. Because that will keep them away.

Mel Faust:
We ran this thing up and had this dead vulture hanging up there. For a couple of days, that worked. We have a cannon, a propane cannon. We had it pointed at the tower, on this time when we found out that … If you scare them off in the morning and in the evening, that's the two times they like to roost as a group, that would help keep them away the rest of the day.

Mel Faust:
That did work for about two or three days. I took the cannon upstairs, and I had the thing. I pointed it right at one that was just out there doing its thing. They like to dry themselves, and they had their wings out.

Mel Faust:
And so, I pointed it right at this thing, and opened up the propane thing. I could see the propane filling up with propane. I knew it was going to go off. And then, when it went off it was like, "Boom!"

Callie Dosberg:
Oh my gosh. And, Mel, the cannon is just to scare them? It's not to injure them?

Mel Faust:
Just to scare them. Yeah. It's just a noise maker. They use these cannons all over airports all over the United States. And all over the world, basically, to scare off their birds and stuff. That's one of the things. It did work for a couple of days, but then we tried doing stuff with noise makers.

Mel Faust:
We tried using fireworks and we tried using … Even ran water upstairs too. We built pipes along the inside of the structure and tried to run a special timer in a sprinkler system, because someone said … I talked to the people that sold the parts from this propane cannon, and they said, "Well, you could try these different noises, but vultures really don't have any enemies."

Mel Faust:
Nobody wants to eat them, which I understand. Instead of the using the wire around, I stumbled on this. They call it, "Shock Track." I don't know if you can see it in the picture?

Callie Dosberg:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes.

Mel Faust:
There's two metal braids with a pump in the middle, so the water runs away from it. Or else, with the high voltage … It's no amperage, but it's just high voltage to shock. It would go across it. So, this ridge keeps the water from … And then, it can also open up, and it could fit over some of the applications.

Mel Faust:
And so, all that's glued on that top rail on both our inner and outer rails. Between that and then putting bird spikes on our towers, because you have to work it as a multifaceted approach. We had to do the towers. We had to our tower, the main tower. We had to do that hand rails.

Mel Faust:
Because what we found out was that the vultures are very family-oriented. And it was interesting to see. If one got injured or was not well, the other ones would come down and try to cheer them up, or talk to them, sort of speak. Yeah. You could see them down there.

Mel Faust:
You felt sorry for them, because we had a love-hate relationship with them. They would come down and they would like, "Hey, George. You're not feeling well today?" That type of thing. You can see that they're almost talking to each other and stuff. You have to hit this … To keep these birds away, we had to hit it as a multi-stage thing.

Mel Faust:
And so, by doing that, if we'd only done part of it, we wouldn't have kept all the birds away or most of them away. By doing the towers, the netting, the Shock Track, all that with the spikes and everything. All that together has cut down our problem by 99%, I would say.

Mel Faust:
We don't have a snake problem anymore either. We had snakes. We'd find snakes all the way upstairs in the radar area, just below the dome and everything. Now, we don't have that problem at all. The birds can't get in to lay eggs, the smaller birds. And the snakes don't need to go up there to go after them.

Mel Faust:
Plus, the rotting carcasses and everything that brings on the vermin. Because the snakes go after the rats and anything else that are trying to eat with the leftovers. By doing all that, we took care of a lot of different problems at one time. We had hundreds of vultures and hawks, and small birds and doves, and eagles and osprey. All kinds of stuff.

Mel Faust:
Now, by doing this multifaceted bird deterrent, we're down to almost nothing. The only hawk or eagle I see will be out on the fence line. And it'll be on the bobble or looking out over the thing, but they're not up on the tower.

Mel Faust:
And then, sometimes on the very tip of the antenna, there's just like a little bulb. You'll see a hawk or an osprey sitting there, looking out off that. But I can live with that. It's nothing compared to what we had before.

Callie Dosberg:
All right. I've got one more question for you, Mel. What do you love the most about your job?

Mel Faust:
Well, I love being out here. Well, I mean, some people don't like to be isolated, but I have a connection with animals, Also, this site in particular. I'll be working issues from … We just had potable water. For us, that was a big deal. Because we had this well water, and it stunk of sulfur, and our toilet and our sick was brown.

Mel Faust:
Now we have potable water. We're like a little town out here. We have a 2000 gallon fuel tank, we have a generator. I've got a little kitchen. I love doing this. But then, as soon as I get started in the morning and I make sure all the equipment's working, I go out and I'll run up to the towers.

Mel Faust:
Go make sure their displays are working, or radios, whatever. And then, the boss will say, "I need you to work this." It's a lot of variety, which is what I find interesting. What we do is very important for anybody thinking about doing this. Think of it as a team. It's not a "you." I like to joke that we have, "Team Melbourne."

Mel Faust:
If I have a problem, I can pick up the phone and call one of my other techs, coworkers, or my boss, and he'll send someone, whatever. We've got quite a good team here in Melbourne. Same thing though, we work with Orlando and some of the other places. We just had a thing where we were ready to work on our equipment, and the radar over on the other side, it was down.

Mel Faust:
We had calls saying, can we delay our outage, because these engineers were there trying to fix their radar. And so, we try to work as a team. And there's a lot of growth. There's a lot of things besides the teamwork and the camaraderie. There's a lot of stuff you get to learn.

Allen Kenitzer:
That was really something, Dominique. Mel's passion for his work at the facility and with his team really shines through. It's incredible to hear just how many different things they tried to help the vultures find a new home.

Dominique Gebru:
I agree, Allen. And we've got a great blog post about Mel's work that we'll link in this week's show notes. And that's our show. The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Dominique Gebru:
If you liked this episode, be sure to subscribe and share it with someone else. You can find the FAA on social media too. We're @FAA on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and @FAANews on Twitter and YouTube.

Allen Kenitzer:
Isn't it crazy that I can say ornithologists, but can't say Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University? Thanks for listening.

This page was originally published at: https://www.faa.gov/podcasts/the_air_up_there/?file=2021-03-12-004.mp3