by Bruce H. Mero
A serious problem for airports, the hazard to aircraft presented by flocking birds is one studied at length by the Air Force Bird-Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) Team at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle. Bird-aircraft collisions create an extreme danger to pilots, occasionally an airplane crash results from such collisions. It creates considerable expense to the Air Force when bird strikes damage aircraft or when birds are ingested into jet engines. Accordingly, a number of measures have been developed and tested at Air Force installations by the BASH team, designed to reduce the number of birds at locations on bases where aircraft operations are conducted to minimize bird-aircraft strike hazards.
As the environmental manager for Griffiss Air Force Base, it was my job to implement bird habitat/bird reduction measures the BASH Team had developed to make it safer to fly airplanes at the Griffiss airfield.
At Griffiss, the most significant bird hazard was from Seagulls. Fortunately it is a bird species that had been the object of a great deal of attention by the BASH Team. The size of the bird, its slow take-off and flight characteristics, its propensity for traveling in large flocks and its affinity for the acres of low-cut grass and vast pavement areas found at most airfields, make it a particular problem. Seagull-aircraft strikes were frequent at Griffiss
I’d been in constant contact with the Tyndall folks, that fall. The rains had come early. Seagulls were concentrating in huge numbers on the ramps and taxiways, eating earthworms driven out of the soil and onto the concrete by the saturated soil. The birds generally were not a hazard to the slow moving airplane in these areas, but flocks of gulls loafing near or crossing the active runway were very dangerous and causing aborted take-offs and landings. Airfield Operations crews chased the birds around in trucks, but they often moved only a few yards away from the passing trucks, landed and continued feeding. Blasts from firecracker devices were employed to scare the birds, but proved only minimally effective. The flocks were barely deterred and just moved to a quieter spot.
While we waited for the BASH Team to provide assistance, the Base Commander decided to take the matter into his own hands and organized a Seagull shoot. Every officer and senior NCO on base who owned a shotgun was invited to participate. The Colonel intended to kill the gulls, en masse, to rectify the problem. As was often the case, however, the environmental office (me) put a brief halt to the plan by telling the Colonel that Seagulls were protected under the Migratory Bird Act and they could only be killed if a Federal depredation permit was issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Of course, this news was very popular with the Commander and he gave me a week to get my (expletive deleted) permit. He reminded me that this was HIS base and he was going to do whatever he wanted here and that included killing hundreds of Seagulls, Federal law be damned. Furthermore, he stated that he was going to direct his hunting party to pile the hundreds of Seagull carcasses in my office after the kill on their way to the Officer's Club for an après-hunt party. He got really nasty when I suggested that he take the dead birds with him to the Officer's Club and have the head chef prepare a meal for the valiant hunters from the birds. Enough beer, I suggested, and they'd taste just like chicken.
Long story short, the permit arrived in time for the Colonel to conduct his hunt. At the end of the day two seagulls had been killed by the three dozen shot-gun toting, camouflage-wearing hunters who showed up for the shoot. My guess is that those two birds died of fright when three dozen shot guns went off in the first volley. Two birds, total; several hundred rounds fired. Those two bird carcasses did eventually end up in my office, not because of the Base Commander's threat, but because we had to provide a species identification to the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a condition of them issuing us the depredation permit.
The BASH Team eventually sent me a device they were sure would solve the problem, a Seagull distress call. It was a commonly known fact that birds of all kinds pay close attention to everything going on in the flock around them. Their individual survival depended on warning cues from others in their group. Someone on the BASH Team had captured a Seagull, wrung its neck and made the bird cry in pain; recording the plaintiff scream on tape. Theory was that when the tapes were played in the vicinity of other Seagulls, the sound of distress from the wounded gull would cause the others to flee in panic. Griffiss would be an early test of the device for effectiveness.
I took my portable tape player and the distress call tape to Base Ops and went out onto the ramp with the Airfield Manager and a couple of his staff to test the device. The Base Commander got wind of the plan by his pals in Base Ops and drove his staff car onto the ramp to join us. We stopped our little caravan in the middle of a particularly large accumulation of gulls and set-up the tape player and two large speakers in the back of the Base Ops truck. The Colonel stepped from his car. He had just come from a meeting with the Mayor, downtown and was in dress blues. With the volume on the tape player set at a medium level, I turned on the sound. A horrible scream came out of the speaker resembling fingers raking across a chalkboard. Sure enough all of the birds jumped off the ground. They didn’t fly away in panic, however. The flock just milled around in the air a couple of dozen feet above the vehicles looking for their injured compadre. I thought that if it worked pretty well at half volume, what would happen if I played it again at maximum volume? I turned the volume higher and played the tape again. We humans all winced at the horrible sound. Every one of the hundreds of Seagulls flapping above our heads crapped in unison.
The Base Commander retreated to his car, too late to undo the besmirching with Seagull dukie he'd just experienced. He drove his car away with his windshield washer streaking poop across the window. The rest of us just laughed. It was funny; a terrible mess, but funny. The results of our test of the distress tape was dutifully reported to the BASH Team, every aspect. It was my sense that the very serious voice at the end of the phone had a great laugh after our call.
hey Lisa from Kansas, Dad said your nice e-mail inspired him to add some to this story!!!