Air War on Sea-Tac Birds

A jetliner's engine fire last week, caused by a duck, came as a reminder of the hazard wild birds pose for airports, but a biologist says ongoing efforts have reduced bird strikes here.

When a green-wing teal flew into the engine of an approaching US Airways jet at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last week, the engine caught fire.

Luckily, the plane landed safely and no one aboard was injured.

The duck, of course, was very dead.

The problem of bird strikes is a common and complex one at U.S. airports. So much so that Sea-Tac was one of the first in the country to hire a full-time biologist to address problems posed by birds that live on and migrate through the wetlands surrounding the airport.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, between 1990 and 2005 there were 980 bird strikes in Washington state; nationally there were 66,000 strikes, not including those involving military aircraft.

None at Sea-Tac has caused injuries, but some have damaged planes.

Steve Osmek, the biologist at Sea-Tac since 2000, stands near Reba Lake, north of the airport, and fires a gun into the air. It's filled with noisemakers, what airport officials call pyrotechnics, designed to scare away nesting birds. A startled flock nearby soars into the sky.

While biologists once focused their bird-enforcement attempts within 10,000 feet of an airport, the distance has grown to five miles.

Osmek said bird strikes are actually declining at Sea-Tac because of his efforts.

"We work hard at keeping it down," he said.

Safety-minded crows

Osmek said 56 different species of birds have been sighted at Sea-Tac. While crows are the most common, they cause the fewest problems, Osmek said, because they're smart and avoid aircraft. When airplanes land, the crows move away.

Gulls, he said, get struck by aircraft more than any other kind of bird. Just a month ago a gull flew into the wing of a jet parked at Sea-Tac and died. Nationwide, gulls account for 24 percent of airplane strikes.

According to the FAA, of all the bird strikes reported nationwide, 85 percent did not damage the aircraft, while in 4 percent of the strikes the airplanes were badly damaged.

In February 2004, a plane taking off from Portland's airport hit five ducks and returned to the airport with one engine down. The engine couldn't be repaired and had to be replaced at a cost of $2.5 million.

Two months later, at the same airport, a great blue heron was sucked into an engine, causing $388,000 in damage.

One of the most disastrous bird-strike incidents occurred in 1995 at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. An AWACS surveillance jet crashed and all 24 crew members were killed when Canada geese were sucked into the engines after takeoff.

What made last week's US Airways incident unusual, said Osmek, is that the teals don't nest here, so the duck that struck the aircraft may have been migrating. Officials were able to determine what kind of bird hit the plane after part of the bird's wing was found.

Since 1977, when Sea-Tac hired its first biologist, 700 bird strikes have been reported at Sea-Tac, Osmek said.

Most bird strikes are recorded in September and October when birds are in the air migrating; the least number occur in May and June, when birds are nesting.

Tracking movements

Sea-Tac biologists have equipped six pairs of red-tailed hawks with radio transmitters to follow their paths. In the past five years, none of those hawks has been hit by an airplane. When the hawks reproduce, biologists take the offspring away from the airport and relocate them north of Seattle. None has ever returned.

And the airport has taken other steps to handle the bird problem:

* Grass is kept cut relatively short, at 8 inches, so rodents can't hide in it and attract birds.

* To keep ducks away, biologists plant trees and shrubs in various areas to reduce the amount of water on the property.

* The airport plants clover that is distasteful to geese and puts nets over nearby ponds to keep birds out.

Every day, Osmek or one of his assistants go around the airport and shoot off their noise-making guns to scare birds away.

"If it's in the air, it can be hit by a plane," Osmek said. "If it flies, it can certainly come into harm's way."

Types of birds hit most by aircraft in Washington state, 1990-2005:

Seagull, 95

Canada goose, 44

European starling, 41

Killdeer, 26

Barn swallow, 20

Source: Federal Aviation Administration

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