It’s a Bird! Hits a Plane!

March 2, 2008

Let’s be honest,” says Dave Ball, who supervises the Vancouver airport’s million-dollar wildlife management program. “This is the worst place they could have built an airport.”

We’re standing at the southeastern edge of the YVR complex, on the western flank of the Fraser River delta, and we’re talking birds. The delta that accommodates the airport has the highest density of wintering waterfowl and migrating shorebirds in British Columbia. YVR is unique among Canadian airports in that the number of avian visitors actually skyrockets in the winter, thanks to our mild climate. To keep them away from our aircraft, Ball and his team pestered more than 200,000 birds last January. All told, two million birds—over three times the human population of Vancouver—were chased off the airfield in 2006.

“Put your fingers in your ears,” Ball orders. He’s about to fire off the newest addition to his arsenal of bird-harassing gear, a light and hardy remote-controlled propane cannon that sits off South Perimeter Road. Its brightly coloured components pop against the roiling middle arm of the Fraser River and the pale clouds that cling overhead.

En route to our meeting, I had envisioned a typical cannon, but smaller—a bird-size 9 O’Clock Gun. Instead, I face a mini propane tank, battery pack, solar panel, transmitter, and firing tube all plonked atop a little wagon. Ball presses Fire on his remote control. Sure enough, his Tonka Toy weapon emits a white flash of fire and…BOOM! There are no birds around for the sobering demo, but there’s little doubt that any in the vicinity would have been sent into a rout. “Absolutely, the purpose of harassment is to teach the birds that this is a place they don’t want to be,” says Simon Robinson, an environmental specialist at the airport. “There shouldn’t be a reward for being here; they’re going to get chased around.”

Collisions between birds and commercial planes are serious business, and the Vancouver airport’s wildlife management program is arguably the most rigorous in North America. “I don’t think there’s any airport that has quite as many resources dedicated to the job as Vancouver,” says Gary Searing, a wildlife biologist who has worked with the airport since 1989.

Then again, we don’t really have a choice. On the other side of the human-bird equation, YVR is Canada’s second-busiest airport. In 2007 it saw over 17 million passengers and more than 300,000 takeoffs and landings. The threat of impact is never-ending.

“We can’t be at every place on the airport all the time, and every once in a while, birds and aircraft come together,” Ball says. In 2006 some 244 birds were killed in 149 collisions with aircraft. According to Transport Canada, our airport averaged 5.7 strikes per 10,000 takeoffs and landings in 2006—the highest strike rate in Canada.

“Sometimes all it is is a bump in the night, a dent on the leading edge, a blood smear,” Ball says. But the bill gets into the millions of dollars when an engine ingests a bird, sending fan blades, as well as the carcass, ricocheting around inside. Transport Canada estimates that the total cost of bird strikes in North America exceeds $500 million per year.

No person has yet died in Canada from a bird strike. However, in 1995 a military plane struck three dozen Canada geese during takeoff at Elmendorf, Alaska, and dropped from the sky, killing all 24 crew members.

Hence our airport’s wildlife management program. Ball refers to his equipment as “the toys for the boys.” No wonder. His wildlife control officers patrol in souped-up pickups armed with flashing lights, sirens, and radios. They pack pistols and shotguns that fire pyrotechnics, bullhorns that emit bird alarm calls, high-beam flashlights (we’re talking a $3,100 xenon beam that can illuminate objects a mile and a half away), and laser beams (one is called the Avian Dissuader). Plus the airport keeps two border collies, Traveler and Chaser, that alternate bird-charging duties clad in their distinctive neon-yellow doggie vests tagged with reflective YVR badges.

Birds, like hurricanes, are placed in categories based on the damage they can cause. “There are six hazard categories based on the size of the bird and the flocking behaviour,” explains Searing. Small birds like savannah sparrows fall into Category 6. A swallow (Category 5) is a bit more dangerous since it travels in flocks. But the snow goose, both heftier and flocking, is a Category 1—and thanks to warmer weather, its numbers are growing by as much as 30 percent per year.

Ball and his team have two boats at their disposal to help them dissuade the snow geese from settling near the airport. A dedicated snow goose officer patrols during the winter months. This year, sizable numbers of snow geese have settled in Richmond schoolyards—an indication, Searing says, that the harassment is not perfect. “We’ve never had flocks of 20,000 snow geese right across the river on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “If they came over to the Vancouver airport, I don’t know what we would do.”

Like all arms races, it’s an endlessly escalating conflict. The program has experimental plots of tall grasses on the go in an effort to figure out what growth regime best turns off the birds. Once, Ball even considered adopting a remote-controlled truck that looked like an Armadillo to sick on great blue herons.

“I have a north airport person, I have a south airport person, I have a snow goose person, I have a groundside person, I have the supervisor, and I have me,” explains Ball as we swing by the north runway’s approach lights. Theirs is a Sisyphean task, but Ball finds the silver lining: “You might say if you enjoy your work it’s a guaranteed job, because the planes aren’t going anywhere and neither are the birds.”

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