Death from above for migratory songbirds at Ottawa airport

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Transport Canada database reveals that passenger jets have twice struck flocks of birds at the Ottawa International Airport this spring.

Already this year, 16 bird strikes have been reported at the airport, including one incident last month in which a WestJet Dash 8 turboprop collided with a flock of migratory snow buntings during its approach to landing. Five dead birds were found on the runway.

Last week, the pilot of an Air Canada Airbus A320 also reported striking five snow buntings during takeoff. The bird strike had no effect on the Toronto-bound flight.

Bird strikes in Ottawa are much more common during the summer months, which is one of the things that makes this spring’s activity so unusual.

Ottawa International Airport Authority spokesperson Krista Kealey said airport officials have noticed an increase in bird numbers this year, particularly among the local population of snow buntings.  

“Snow buntings have increased this year, likely due to the quick melt and then lingering cold weather,” said Kealey. 

Snow buntings are migratory songbirds and return to the High Arctic each spring to breed. Males normally return in early April to establish nesting sites and are followed about a month later by the females.

Kealey said the airport maintains a comprehensive bird and wildlife management program to reduce the chance of contact between animals and aircraft.

Full-time staff, she said, chase birds from airport property using non-lethal means, such as flares, noise makers and “bird bangers” — propane-fired devices that make a cannon-like sound. The airport also uses birds of prey when necessary to drive other birds from the area.

According to a Postmedia analysis of a Transport Canada database, the number of bird strikes at the Ottawa airport has fluctuated during the past decade, from a low of 26 in 2010 to a high of 47 in 2014. But that database, the Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS), only reports some of the incidents.

Transport Canada’s annual report on wildlife incidents is more complete and it reveals that the number of bird strikes at Canadian airports has climbed steadily during the past five years. 

In 2014, the last year for which numbers are available, 1,816 bird strikes were reported in Canada — a one year increase of 12 per cent.

According to information published in that report, the Ottawa International Airport reported a total of 71 bird strikes in 2014. Only international airports in Vancouver and Toronto reported more such incidents. (In Ottawa, four wildlife strikes — involving three foxes and one skunk — were also reported in 2014).  

Kealey said the annual number of bird strikes depends on many factors, including the weather, which can influence the local population of certain species. “We also suspect,” she said, “that the provincial ban on pesticide use may have an impact. But there’s no way to prove it.”

The Ontario government banned the cosmetic use of pesticides in 2009. 

Anouk Hoedeman, co-ordinator of Safe Wings Ottawa, said snow buntings are ground foragers and are likely attracted to the airport’s fields. “Their flocking behaviour makes them more vulnerable because they are flying en masse,” she said, “so if one collides, others probably will too.”

Large birds such as Canada geese and turkey vultures pose the most danger to aircraft, although flocks of smaller birds can cause serious damage if sucked into the interior of a plane’s engine. The vast majority of strikes take place during takeoff and landing. 

In January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in New York’s Hudson River when both engines lost power after striking a flock of geese near La Guardia Airport. Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger’s flawless water landing saved the lives of everyone on board.

Bird strikes have been a problem since the dawn of aviation. The pioneering Wright Brothers recorded what was likely the first bird strike over the cornfields of Dayton, Ohio, in September 1905, two years after they built and piloted the first successful, powered airplane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The first man to fly across the United States, Cal Rogers, died in an April 1912 bird strike.

According to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) report issued last year, the number of wildlife strikes in the U.S. has increased more than seven-fold since 1990 to a record 13,668 in 2014. 

The FAA said bird strike numbers have increased because of larger bird populations and quieter, turbo-fan powered airplanes. Globally, it said, 258 people have died in aviation accidents triggered by bird strikes during the past three decades.

Andrew Duffy, Ottawa Citizen