Limiting bird strikes at airports with falconry and habitat
management All rights reserved (c) 2011-2018 Frania Shelley-Grielen
The decision to end on an ongoing contract with Falcon Environmental Services Inc.,
supplying falconry to control gull traffic at JFK International Airport and replace it
with shooters was reported in 2011 in The Wall Street Journal. The Port Authority of NY
and NJ, which operates the airport, is now in talks with the USDA to manage the gulls
by shooting them. No bids were taken.
NYC’s largest international airport abuts one of NYC’s wilderness treasures: Jamaica
Bay Wildlife Refuge, managed by the National Park Service. Once heavily polluted, the
restoration of Jamaica Bay over the last 40 years has led to an increase in the viability
and variety of the species of wildlife that lives there. The Fish and Wildlife Service calls
the area a “significant habitat” and lists 48 species of fish and 120 species of birds, and
notes among its features: “The extensive salt marsh and upland islands in the bay
provide nesting habitat for gulls, terns, waterfowl, and herons; foraging and roosting
habitat for shorebirds and water birds; upland sites for grassland bird nesting and
A nesting colony of 15 pairs of the gulls was observed at Jamaica Bay in 1979, a
response to the improved quality of the habitat. In 1990 there were 7,629 pairs of
laughing gulls counted. With all those birds living next door to the airport there are
sure to be conflicts.
Birds fly and so do planes. Flying is how birds find food, partners, flock mates, get
around and gather information. When migrating, birds follow historical flyways,
many of which may intersect a flight path at the next door neighbors’ place.
According to a 2003 report with the USDA as the lead author, 52% of bird strikes at
JKF were laughing gulls. A “bird strike” is defined as a collision between an aircraft in
motion and a bird. The birds are usually fatalities and the collision may cause damage
to aircrafts and result in equipment failure and accidents. Airports are required by the
Federal Aviation Administration to have bird management programs. Laughing gulls
along with Canada geese are targeted species for animal control at area airports. These
programs frequently employ bird scaring techniques such as pyrotechnics, sounds,
habitat alteration, and the use of raptors to scare the birds off or marksmen to kill
Wildlife management programs in order to be effective need to be dynamic. Simply
put, wildlife responds to the immediate conditions of the surrounding environment.
Animals learn where to go to find the best and most food, shelter, mates, affiliates and
to avoid danger. A dynamic wildlife management program recognizes the intelligence,
lifestyle and responsiveness of a species. Birds avoiding raptors in an area will learn to
stay away from the area and will keep flock mates and family members away from
them. Birds shot dead can neither learn nor pass on information.
Scaring techniques need to be offered on an intermittent schedule so that the animals
targeted cannot habituate or get used to them. Birds will learn to avoid a pyrotechnic
display set off in the same location at the same time but only at the time it fires. Habit
alteration should follow success stories; RAF airfields have lessened bird numbers by
60% by keeping the grass at the airfields long rather than mowed. Multiple bird species
will not prey or rest in long grasses. Not offering so many free meals will also help
matters; studies show that runways often contain edible debris that attracts birds.
A transportation research study published in 2011 suggested a dynamic wildlife
management technique incorporating falconry supplemented by long grass policy and
debris free access and taxiways to be the most effective methods to deter birds from
airports. The 2003 case study with the USDA as the lead author indicated that the
“2000 and 2002 data showed a major decline in strikes of laughing gulls,” a period
highlighted by the falconer program in operation.
Science, behavior and a wildlife refuge full of birds offer JFK other more effective
options than guns for managing wildlife populations.
"Simply put, wildlife responds to the
immediate conditions of the
surrounding environment. Animals
learn where to go to find the best and
most food, shelter, mates, affiliates
and to avoid danger. A dynamic
wildlife management program
recognizes the intelligence, lifestyle
and responsiveness of a species"
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen