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When airplanes collide with flocks of birds the results can be fatal. One wildlife biologist spends her days at JFK Airport attempting to keep the sky safe for takeoff and landing.
By Maria P. Gonzalez
he sky is blue and cloudless, and the morning vibe is relatively calm, save for the steady set of jet engines screaming down the runways at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Laura Francoeur ’90 is on a routine drive across the tarmac, casually scanning the concrete for signs of dangerous animal debris.
As if on cue, a flock of starlings burst from a patch of grass, and luckily disperse away from the departing aircraft and across Jamaica Bay, which abuts the airfield.
An airfield may seem an unlikely place for wildlife control, but that is exactly what Francoeur does as chief wildlife biologist for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Francoeur oversees wildlife management efforts at five of the agency’s airports, and is based at JFK.
“This airport is surrounded on three sides by water,” Francoeur explains. “So there is actually a lot of potential habitat for wildlife.”
On their daily rounds, Francoeur and her team are keeping aircraft safe by reducing bird strikes that can cause damage, injuries or in rare cases, casualties. At the same time, the team seeks to respect wildlife’s balance with its environment.
“Our goal is never to eliminate wildlife, just eliminate hazards on the runway,” Francoeur says.
Francoeur is an expert on the habits of wildlife around the airfield. Dawn and dusk are usually the busy times of the day for bird activity, she says, adding that gulls and other migratory waterfowl are frequently in conflict with the passenger and cargo aircraft that make JFK among the busiest airports in the nation. As evidence, fragments of clamshells litter much of the tarmac closest to the water’s edge.
“The gulls grab the clams at low tide, and they fly and they drop them on the hard surfaces and crack them open,” Francoeur says. “They’re very, very smart.”
Bird strikes are so prevalent, and the proper management of wildlife surrounding airfields so critical, that the Port Authority was authorized to create a biologist staff position in the 1990s. Francoeur took on the job at JFK in 1999.
Thankfully, bird strikes often result in little or no damage to aircraft. Most flights take off without realizing a bird has been struck. Larger birds and those that fly in flocks pose the greatest threats and disruptions to air travel. It was a flock of Canada geese that struck U.S. Airways flight 1549 on takeoff from LaGuardia on Jan. 15, 2009, shutting down both engines. Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III successfully landed the aircraft on the Hudson River, saving all passengers.
“That was a mess,” Francoeur recalls about that day. Her tone turns more serious, explaining that the crash landing centralized the wildlife efforts through the port.
Aircraft bird strikes have likely been occurring since the first flight by the Wright brothers on a North Carolina beach in 1903. Carving their own paths in the skies, migratory birds take flight in search of food and shelter, while journeying to nesting sites. In the 1980s, an increase in laughing gull strikes was linked to a colony at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, the only known nesting colony in the state.
“By the time we hit the late ’80s, two-thirds of all the strikes at JFK were caused by laughing gulls,” Francoeur says. “We had over 300 strikes one year, and 270 of them were from laughing gulls. It was a huge percentage.”
A blue ribbon panel of international experts recommended a twofold approach to the gull problem at JFK. The long-term recommendation was to explore the removal of the colony from the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Lethal removal became the short-term solution. It is why wildlife supervisors are trained in firearm handling and carry rifles with them on patrols of the airfield.
“That’s been [a] really effective [short-term solution] and has reduced the laughing gull strike by over 90 percent,” Francoeur says. “It’s also reduced the strike rate for the other three species of gull that are in this area by, generally, somewhere around 60 to 70 percent.”
But “we’re not removing all the gulls, just the ones that are trying to fly over the airport. A lot of them are deterred by the shooting.”
The pyro gun
Dion Clarke points a 9mm pistol into the sky, away from the Airbus A380 taxiing on the runway. With a tap of the trigger, a “bird banger” is released into the sky with a blank round. Like a firework, the pyrotechnic shell explodes with a pop, loud enough to scare away any birds looking to linger in the airways.
Clarke handles much of the daily patrolling on the tarmac. The pyro gun is one of several tools used to steer birds away. A paintball gun, bedecked in colorful tape to avoid confusion with a more lethal weapon, propels balls aimed at a bird’s body, stunning it out of the sky.
The rifles rest in dark green fabric cases that can be slung over the shoulder. Ammunition is stored in proper metallic cases at the back of the patrol trucks, per the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Despite the arsenal, Clarke’s morning has been relatively quiet. He believes gulls may have followed a school of fish in Jamaica Bay.
Clarke is one of two airport staff trained as wildlife supervisors to handle the daily patrols on the tarmac. Francoeur handles much of the training for the wildlife department, which has expanded through the years.
During training sessions with staff, Francoeur draws comparisons to Central Park and uses aerial shots of the city to illustrate humans’ inevitable intersection with wildlife. Her enthusiasm grows as she explains the world with a bird’s-eye view.
“Think about it from the bird’s perspective,” Francoeur says. “They’re flying over [Central Park]. This looks like an oasis in the middle of the desert, right? There’s green space where they’re hemmed in by pavement and asphalt and buildings and development everywhere.
“It’s the same thing with an airfield,” she continues. “It looks a little bit like an oasis to wildlife. It seems like a great place to take up shop and do your thing. At airports you usually can find food, cover and water. And those are the three things that every living thing needs to survive. Our goal is to reduce that as much as possible.”
At JFK, Francoeur and her colleague Jeffrey Kolodzinski are the “bird nerds” of the General Aviation Terminal. A wooden flying gull hangs from the ceiling in Francoeur’s office. Desk space is taken up by an impressive collection of colorful, plush toy birds, and soft, preserved bird specimens taken directly from the runways.
Among them is a goose that is preserved enough to be used for training purposes. It’s a fun prop for Francoeur to take when she speaks to children about her line of work.
“Kids love the goose,” she says enthusiastically. “They all want to pet the goose.”
Yet for every well-preserved runway casualty there are the less fortunate birds who may come apart on impact, or get sucked violently down in a jet’s wake vortex. There’s a name for this type of debris: snarge.
Snarge ends up in a freezer, along with other specimens, and samples of it—a couple of feathers, maybe some blood or tissue samples—get shipped to the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Researchers at the feather lab work with the Federal Aviation Administration to build its Wildlife Strike Database. The FAA maintains a Wildlife Strike Database with records dating back to 1990. Studying the types of birds that are struck helps specialists predict patterns and habits that can be used to increase safety and lead to fewer strikes.
Innovation is key when dealing with wildlife mitigation. Cone-shaped caps on top of delineators (plastic safety poles) keep birds from perching. The endophyte fescue grass around the tarmac will make grazing animals ill. A right balance of grass height is maintained. Too tall, and birds and other critters seek shelter. Too low, and the grass helps the critters spot predators earlier on.
When osprey started perching on FAA navigation equipment, the wildlife team needed to meet specific requirements.
“We needed something that would be able to keep the osprey off, but it also had to be nonmetallic, and it also had to hold up to wear and tear,” Kolodzinski says.
The answer came from a vendor at the bird strike conference, who had used something similar to keep birds off tennis courts. A series of plastic spikes deters the birds from perching. Nylon cords keep osprey from perching on railings.
“Probably our first strategy in managing wildlife in any airport is habitat management,” Francoeur says. “You try and make the area as unattractive to wildlife as possible. And that reduces the amount of wildlife that you have to manage in other ways.”
Maintaining unappealing landscapes has helped keep muskrats and rabbits and even insects away, keeping birds away in the process.
On the runways, sweeper trucks will make periodic rounds to clear away FOD, or Foreign Object Debris. The shattered shells left behind by hungry gulls will be swept away along with any other runway debris. Even the smallest object can disrupt the coordinated takeoffs and landings. This includes turtles.
Red nail polish
Francoeur has more recently focused on a growing Diamondback terrapin population that emerges from Jamaica Bay each nesting season in June and July. Terrapins that make it on the runways are collected, inspected, tagged and released.
Among the data collection tools is a bottle of red nail polish. Francoeur smiles as she shows how a red dot is placed on the terrapins’ shells to distinguish those that have been tagged.
“They’re all female terrapins so I don’t think they mind,” she offers playfully.
The terrapin airfield research field is small, yet for the past few summers Francoeur has welcomed summer interns who have helped collect data on the terrapins.
On Francoeur’s desk rests a handcarved wooden terrapin that a summer intern whittled three years ago and is now used for training. Francoeur flips the wooden terrapin to reveal its underside, where a scannable microchip, about the size of a grain of rice, is attached with tape. Short of being an official training tool, the wooden terrapin does serve as a visual, hands-on prop for marking and tagging turtles in the field.
The wildlife team has learned that the terrapins won’t take the trouble to dig beneath a chain-link fence. In areas without extensive fencing, a simple irrigation tool has done the trick. Close to 5,000 feet of corrugated drainage pipe keeps most terrapins from reaching the tarmac.
“I like this because it’s a super low-tech method,” she says. “It’s like irrigation tubing, and it’s with an eight-inch diameter. It keeps the terrapins out.”
Problem-solving goes hand in hand with innovation.
“A lot of it is forging your own way because not everything has been discovered yet,” Francoeur says. “A lot of times you’re learning along the way. That’s what makes this job so interesting. We’re always learning new things, or dealing with new issues.”