Airport takes predatory approach to avian conflicts

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Vancouver Sun

Airport takes predatory approach to avian conflicts. Several measures — at a cost of more than $1 million annually — are employed to keep birds off runways, including falconers and shotguns

As a 737 passenger jet screams overhead, Vancouver International Airport unleashes its latest weapon in the battle to improve aviation safety.

Athena, a six-year-old female gyrfalcon, flies from the leather glove of contracted falconer Emily Craster standing in a grassy area just beyond the west end of the south runway. The falcon makes a low pass over a clump of bulrushes then continues along the productive Sturgeon Bank foreshore skirting Sea Island in Richmond.

“See the dunlin,” exclaims Brett Patterson, YVR’s director of airside operations. “They’re moving, even though she’s not going after them.”

Bred in captivity and well fed, the falcon doesn’t really hunt wild birds but enjoys stretching its wings as much as dogs like to stretch their legs on an off-leash walk. The mere presence of the predator is enough for several dozen of the shorebirds to fly away from the shore and potential conflict with aircraft. After Athena makes a few passes, Craster swings a lure made of leather and bird feathers through the air to attract the falcon back to her arm, then provides a reward. “It’s a little treat,” she says. “Today she’s eating quail — gourmet.”

Vancouver airport spends more than $1 million annually to keep birds away from its three runways, employing pyrotechnics, strings of shiny tinsel, border collies, bright lights, foreshore patrol boats, and, yes, shotguns. Wildlife control workers shot a total of 1,987 birds last year, well above the annual five-year average of 778. The numbers reflect a stepped-up campaign against ducks — larger birds considered to pose a greater danger — with a total of 1,486 killed in 2010, compared with just 34 the year before. Another 661 birds, including 403 dunlin, died in 217 strikes with aircraft in 2010, up from the five-year average of 189 strikes.

Falconry is just one trial underway at YVR to reduce the problem with birds.

Officials are also testing fungus-containing endophytic grass undesirable to insects and birds, a trap-and-release program that has already relocated 27 hawks up the Fraser Valley since last November (of which 10 returned), and, soon, remote-controlled mechanized ornithopters that can be flown around to scare birds. Night-vision cameras will allow better detection after dark. Fencing will also be improved to deter coyotes, and drainage improved to prevent ponding that encourages waterfowl. YVR is also looking at the purchase of a small hovercraft to chase birds along the shore.

“We’re on the Pacific flyway,” said Patterson, noting the airport has about 1,000 hectares of green space. “Dozens of species enjoy the airport environment. We need different tools to make the airport less attractive to those species.” He added: “We’re becoming more and more a green oasis in the middle of urban sprawl.”

Gillian Radcliffe, owner of Pacific Northwest Raptors in the Cowichan Valley, owns more than 90 raptors representing 22 species and works not just at airports but landfills, agricultural operations such as vineyards, and industrial sites where birds pose a nuisance. “We’re utilizing natural predator-prey relationships,” she explains. “Many birds have co-evolved with predators and are naturally fearful of them and will get out of their way. “It’s something they never habituate to.”

lpynn@vancouversun.com

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