Airport: Bird strikes aren’t an issue here

By Sara Bruestle | Feb 12, 2014

Although a wetland with open water is adjacent to Paine Field, airport officials say it doesn’t increase the risk of “bird strikes.”

Five years after the bird strike that led to Capt. Chelsey B. Sullenberger III’s ditching of a U.S. Airways jetliner in the Hudson River, officials described the many tools that the Snohomish County Airport uses to prevent such crises from happening here.

The 50-acre Narbeck Wetland, northeast of Paine Field in Everett, is frequented by ducks, geese and songbirds.

New York may be at high risk for bird strikes, with several of its major airports close to water, but Narbeck isn’t a problem because it isn’t right next to Paine Field, Airport Director Dave Waggoner said.

Wetlands with open water can't be too close to airport runways because a bird strike – where birds can get sucked through jet engines – is dangerous. Narbeck is just over the 2-mile distance required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

There have been fewer than 100 bird strikes over Paine Field in more than a decade, thanks in part to the airport’s wildlife management program.

Most of the birds were swallows, followed by songbirds and sea gulls. None of the bird strikes recorded from 2001-2013 caused any significant damage.

“It’s been several years for either a goose or a gull, which are the ones we’re most concerned about,” Waggoner said. “We’ve had sparrows and things like that, but they only weigh 3-4 ounces, and they are not a risk factor.”

Although a Boeing jet can strike a goose and keep on flying, the airport’s many general aviation airplanes could be damaged by it: a 9-pound bird could break the propeller, hit the windscreen or cause engine failure.

“They have less of a robust engineering behind them,” Waggoner said of general aviation aircraft. “As you can imagine, it could do more damage to a Cessna than it would to a 747.”

As part of the airport’s Wildlife Management Program, a biologist and a team of 22 supervisors, including all of the Paine Field firefighters, are trained in the identification of birds, hazards and dispersing techniques. The program has been in place for about 20 years.

“[We look at] where it was at and why it may be there, and try to deal with whatever it was attracting them,” said Airport Environmental Manager Andrew Rardin, who oversees the program.

Paine Field’s best and most-used tool to prevent bird strikes is habitat management, Waggoner said.

“We try to make this an inhospitable place for what we consider hazard birds: ducks, geese and gulls,” he said.

“Everybody is attuned to the risk of wildlife hazards and the requirements to deal with those hazards. If we have geese congregating someplace where we think it’s a threat, we’re going to try to get them to go someplace else.”

The airport’s detention ponds are built to FAA standards to deter birds – especially geese. The ponds have steep slopes, quarry spalls that hurt to walk on and limited standing water.

The team also uses pyrotechnics to scare away birds. The pistols do not fire bullets, but are noisemakers. There are two different rounds: the “whistler,” which emits a screech reminiscent of a firework and a “banger,” which, as the name suggests, bangs.

Other tools in the airport’s toolbox include the removal of gull nests from the grounds, planting of grass seeds that geese won’t eat, and the prohibition of fruit trees or berries that attract birds.

What Paine Field’s wildlife team doesn’t use that other airports do are chemicals and predators – such as falcons and boarder collies – to chase the birds away. The airport doesn’t kill the birds.

Unlike those that disrupted Sullenberger’s flight on Jan. 15, 2009, most bird strikes at Paine Field are not witnessed by pilots, but discovered by the airport’s wildlife team upon recovering the carcass.

A lot of times the whole bird isn’t found, so a supervisor will pick up the bones or feathers and send it to a lab for DNA testing and identification.

“Every day, I’m going around the airfield and picking them up, and our biologist goes around and does surveys at 16 different locations,” Rardin said. “Some 20 odd people are constantly being vigilant.”

Waggoner said that Narbeck, which has water that is 2 feet deep at the most, isn’t the most attractive habitat for geese and ducks.

“If you look at all the lakes over by the [Harbour Pointe] golf course, there is so much water around here relative to the water at Narbeck,” Waggoner said. “There isn’t any connection [to bird strikes] there.”

The Narbeck Wetland at 6921 Seaway Blvd. was established in the late 1990s by Snohomish County. The county built the wetland before it removed several smaller ones at the airport to do runway projects.

Creating new wetlands before developing on others is called "mitigation banking."

Paine Field Bird Strikes 2001 - 2013

Swallows – 33

Songbirds – 27

Gulls – 12

Owls – 5

Shorebirds – 5

Ducks – 3

Raptors – 3

Canada Geese – 1

Bats – 1

Total – 90

During 2001-2013, there were no significant damaging bird strikes.

Information from Paine Field's Wildlife Management Program.

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