Airport develops wildlife hazard management plan

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Probably the most famous case of an airplane striking birds in its flight path is US Airways Flight 1549, which lost two engines when it hit Canada geese shortly after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport on Jan. 15, 2009. Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger successfully landed the disabled aircraft in the Hudson River, and all passengers were rescued. The cost associated with that crash was more than $37.9 million.

Less well-known is the bird strike that took place at 8 a.m. Oct. 18, 2010, when a mallard duck struck a private airplane that had just taken off from the University Park Airport. Fortunately the accident did not result in any injuries, but the plane suffered $45,000 worth of damage.

"We were lucky in that incident. It could have turned out much differently than it did," said Bryan Rodgers, director of the airport. "Bird strikes do cause planes to crash, and lives can be lost. It's a serious issue for all airports."

Due to a heightened awareness of the severity of bird strikes, the FAA recommended a Wildlife Hazard Assessment be conducted to determine what wildlife hazards were present at and within a five-mile radius of the airport. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducted the assessment in 2009-10, and based on the results the FAA required the airport to prepare a Wildlife Hazard Management Plan to better manage the potentially hazardous wildlife.

"This plan, which the FAA approved recently, outlines the specific steps to be taken, from least-invasive to most-invasive, to reduce the threat of bird strikes involving flights to or from the University Park Airport," said Travis Tumbleson, wildlife specialist with USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services.

Part of that plan includes the mitigation of potential safety hazards to aircraft within a five-mile radius of the airport.

"Some of the major improvements we have made are maintaining a better and more consistent recommended grass height on airport property, which makes the area less attractive to many bird species. We also removed soybeans from fields located inside the airport perimeter fence and reseeded those fields with a grass mixture that is unpalatable to waterfowl. We're working closely with Penn State Farm Services to significantly reduce agricultural practices and crops around the airport that are attractive to birds and we are keeping dumpsters at the airport covered," Rodgers said.

Those measures have helped to reduce the population of birds in the immediate vicinity of the airport. However, a serious safety threat remains from migratory birds such as ducks and geese. These fowl nest on or near the University Park campus, and feed up to 10 miles or more away -- many crossing airport flight paths and runways on their way to and from their feeding sites.

"One particular area of concern is the pond at the intersection of Porter Road and College Avenue, which is where the University's effluent station is located," said Phillip Melnick, director of buildings and grounds for Penn State. "That area, which has a serious overpopulation of migratory birds, is less than three miles from the airport, so it falls well within the mandate of the FAA-approved plan for mitigating safety risks to air traffic. The USDA, which is the primary entity to monitor, mitigate and enforce the airport's Wildlife Hazard Management plan, has recommended we reduce the waterfowl population at this site."

While people enjoy feeding the ducks and geese, they actually are doing the animals more harm than good. "When people feed them, they stop foraging for food, don't get the nutrients they would get from the food they would get in the wild and could become malnourished," Tumbleson said.

Melnick said habitat modification -- such as removing food sources -- always is the first method tried to reduce wildlife populations, and the effluent station site is no different. "We posted signs prohibiting the feeding of the ducks and geese there, and recently installed a gate to restrict access to the area, but these measures have not been effective. The general public has ignored the signs, and while they may no longer be able to drive to the area, they can and do still walk there and they have continued to feed the geese and ducks. Since people are continuing to feed the birds, they have no incentive to leave the site and so we need to move to the next strategy as outlined in the FAA-approved plan."

The USDA feels the next best step is egg oiling, a process in which newly laid eggs are coated with food-grade corn oil to prevent an embryo from forming or developing. The Humane Society of the United States on its website describes this method as "the humane way to limit flock growth and stabilize good populations."

"We employ this process in conjunction with timed nest removal," said the USDA's Tumbleson. "After about 28 days when the eggs fail to hatch, we remove the nests. If we removed them sooner, they would build new nests in more hidden locations and try again, but if we wait until the end of the cycle, they just give up for that year, so the timing on this is key." Tumbleson said the birds may come back and build nests in the same locations next year, but coupled with the enforcement of the no-feeding policy, the process should reduce the number of waterfowl using the pond.

"There is no guarantee that steps we take will prevent bird strikes at the University Park Airport," said Tumbleson. "However, if the program, in conjunction with greater enforcement of the no-feeding policy, is successful, we will have taken another step to mitigate the real safety hazards these birds present to aircraft and their passengers."

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Last Updated April 10, 2012