The Bird Scarers of Honolulu International Airport
How a handful of Wildlife Services officers with a mixed bag of tricks safeguards aviation at Honolulu International Airport.
by David Thompson; Photography by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams
It’s the late afternoon rush hour at Honolulu International Airport. Airplanes take off or land every few minutes, and the cattle egrets are heading for home, a tiny, mangrove-covered island in Keehi Lagoon, 1,700 feet from the Diamond Head end of Runway 8L.
Over the next couple of hours, 300 to 500 of these scrawny white birds will return to their island for the night, flying in small groups and mostly avoiding the runways. But on this particular day a lone egret breaks the pattern. It’s winging away from the island at top speed, flying along a runway—the worst possible flight path for a bird at a busy airport.
“Where is he going?” says Erik Rutka, who watches the bird approach his truck then zip by overhead. Rutka pulls a quick U-turn, stops, loads a shotgun, then speeds off in pursuit, one hand on the wheel, the other holding the shotgun out the window.
While the Transportation Security Administration is inside the terminal X-raying our shoes to keep the skies safe from terrorists, a little-known band of federal wildlife officers like Rutka are outside on the airfield safeguarding aviation from another threat: birds.
Rutka is a biological-science technician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services’ airport wildlife-management program. In other words, he’s a bird scarer.
When birds and planes collide, the results are inevitably bad for the birds, often costly for airlines and potentially disastrous for air travelers. While a tiny bird might bounce off a plane leaving nothing more than a blood smear, larger birds can smash into airliners like feathery cannonballs, tearing holes in wings and fuselages, smashing cockpit windshields, and damaging the components of jet engines.
Remember the Miracle on the Hudson, in which Captain “Sully” Sullenberger safely ditched a disabled US Airways’ jet carrying 155 people into New York’s icy Hudson River? That was a bird strike. Only Canada Geese were killed in the incident, but air travelers aren’t always so lucky.
Worldwide, more than 400 people have died in plane crashes caused by bird strikes since 2003, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. Dollar-wise, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that bird and other wildlife strikes cause more than $6 million in damage annually in the United States alone.
As Rutka closes in on the wrong-way egret, the bird holds its course. Sometimes simply having a Ford F-150 barreling down upon it is enough to persuade a bird to alter whatever it’s doing at the moment. Indeed, the old vehicular-harassment technique is an essential tool in the bird scarers’ bag of tricks.
But it’s not working on this bird. So Rutka stops the truck and fires the shotgun toward the sky. It sends aloft a pyrotechnic device called a shellcracker, which explodes high in the air like an extra-loud firecracker in order to drive the bird away from its flash and bang. Rutka calls this “pyroing the bird.”
When the shellcracker explodes, the cattle egret flinches but continues flying along the runway. Rutka reloads, speeds after the bird, stops and pyros it again. The bird flinches a second time but does not change course. Rutka catches up with the bird yet again and pyros it once more. This time the bird flinches then banks a wide turn away from the runway.
“It’s kind of weird that he was flying this way,” says Rutka, who watches the bird high tail it away from the runway and off toward Keehi Lagoon. “Maybe the other birds banished him from the island.”
“Or maybe his wife kicked him out,” quips wildlife biologist Darrin Phelps.
Phelps is the biologist in charge of the wildlife-management programs at Honolulu International, Dillingham Airfield, Kalaeloa Airport and three military airfields on Oahu. He is, in other words, Oahu’s top bird scarer. He used to work as a biological-science technician like Rutka, chasing birds around Honolulu airport. Now he works at Wildlife Services’ administrative offices near the airport on Kopaka Street, where a yellowing cattle egret, stuffed and mounted, stands on a shelf above his desk.
1. Driving along runways, where the oncoming traffic approaches at 170 miles per hour, takes full concentration. 2. Rutka looks on as Phelps readies the Super Talon Animal Catcher. 3. Reloading the CODA All-Purpose Netgun. 4. Rutka prepares to pyro. 5. A bird-scaring experiment: the radio-controlled car.
Phelps is out on the runway today to accompany HONOLULU Magazine on a ride-along. We’ve come to get a taste of what it is that bird scarers do. We sit with Phelps in the backseat of the trucks’ extended cab, leaving the front passenger seat for Rutka’s two shotguns.
From the birds’ standpoint, Honolulu International’s 4,222 acres are a vast feeding ground. Keeping them out entirely would be as impossible as holding back the tide. Wildlife Services focuses instead on keeping birds away from the runways and on waging a daily campaign of harassment to discourage birds from coming to the airport in general.
Frankly, the odds are stacked in favor of the birds, who outnumber the government guys by thousands to one. At 13 state-run airports and airfields around Hawaii there are 27 Wildlife Services officers, including six at Honolulu International Airport. There are four additional officers at three military airfields. At Honolulu International, at any given time, there’s generally not more than one officer out on the airfield harassing the wildlife.
What the birds also have in their favor is a shrewd threat-assessment ability that’s been honed through millions years of evolution. They are quick to figure out the bird scarers’ ways and adapt to them, or ignore them altogether.
Take the mynahs, for example. Not only do they recognize Wildlife Services’ white trucks (most of the other airport vehicles are yellow), but they have apparently figured out their limitations. In deference to the Federal Aviation Administration, which does not want automobiles on runways, Wildlife Services will drive around the end of a runway and back to get from one side to the other. If mynahs along a runway spot a white truck approaching, rather than scramble away, they simply hop across to the opposite side, safely out of reach. If it’s a yellow truck, they don’t usually bother to move at all.
Part of the challenge for the bird scarers is changing their tricks and techniques often enough that the birds don’t grow too accustomed to them.
“It’s like constantly battling with thousands of children,” says Phelps. “You constantly have to think of new and creative ways to keep them away from the airfield.”
Our ride-along starts at The Cave, the name the bird scarers have given to their field office, two windowless concrete rooms beneath the Wiki-Wiki Express passenger shuttle ramp to the Diamond Head Concourse.
One room is filled with desks and has a white board on the wall showing all the documented bird strikes over the past several months. Historically, October is the leading bird-strike month, and the Pacific golden plover, which arrives in Hawaii then, after summering in the Arctic, claims the title of Honolulu International’s leading bird-strike species. Of the 82 reported bird strikes at the airport in 2011, 32 were golden plovers, and nearly half of those were reported in October.
In The Cave’s other room, Wildlife Services stores its tools of the trade, such as weed whackers, rakes, brooms, cages, bird spikes and poles with giant nets on the ends. There are stockpiles of bird feed for the live traps, several cages of store-bought mice for the owl traps and a freezer chest where the snarge is kept.
Snarge is the technical name for the remains of a bird following a bird strike. It can range from a whole, mangled carcass to a single webbed foot, a tuft of feathers or a blood stain. Collecting snarge is a routine duty for the bird scarers, who identify the species that produced the snarge when they can, and ship the snarge to the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab when they can’t.
Also stored in the shop are some bird-scaring experiments, like the rolls of reflective mylar tape that Phelps’ guys stretched across drainage canals to keep birds from congregating there. “It works for a day or two, but before you know it the birds go right underneath it,” Phelps says.
Other experiments include a radio-controlled, toy race car and a radio-controlled, toy speed boat. In a test, the race car succeeded in lifting a flock of cattle egrets off the ground, but the birds simply landed on a nearby fence to watch the curiosity that had interrupted them.
The toy speed boat worked better at chasing birds out of drainage canals around the airport, but it got nixed by the FAA, which worried that the lightweight boat could get caught in a gust of wind and create an entirely new hazard: boat strike.
In other parts of the world, Phelps says, bird scarers employ radio-controlled airplanes, sometimes disguised as hawks, eagles or other raptors. But these hardly seem like a practical option at Honolulu’s busy airport. “We’re out here trying to reduce hazards, not create them,” Phelps says.
On the horizon, there are some new high-tech gadgets Phelps is keeping an eye on.
One is a thermal imaging camera, which could be mounted on top of Wildlife Services’ trucks to help find birds at night. Another is the Long Range Acoustic Device, LRAD, also known as a sound cannon. Used mainly by law enforcement for crowd control, LRAD emits a highly focused beam of painfully loud noise that might be as effective at shooing birds as it is in dispersing protestors.
And then there’s the bird-scaring robot the South Korean military is testing. The robot, which can be controlled remotely or turned loose to operate autonomously, is eight feet long, shoots green lasers and can chase birds at up to 31 miles per hour. It’s equipped with a thermal imaging camera and loudspeakers that broadcast a variety of unnerving noises, including predator calls and the screams of dying birds.
Phelps is intrigued by the robot, and not at all worried about being replaced by it.
“Nothing will replace an actual person on the ground being there to address wildlife issues,” he says. “There’s no formula for predicting what wildlife will do on the spur of the moment. That’s why they’re called ‘wildlife.’”
The most high-tech gadget the bird scarers at Honolulu International currently have is the Avian Dissuader, which is essentially a high-powered laser pointer designed specifically to freak out birds. In practice, the results are so-so. “It’s good for lifting the birds,” Phelps says. “But you can’t control the direction they fly like you can with a shellcracker.”
Driving along an active runway at a busy airport, where the oncoming traffic travels at 150 knots and produces thrust that can flip a pickup truck like a quarter, can be stressful. As we drive through the median, groups of golden plovers spring from the grass and fly away, tweeting with alarm. Rutka comes to a complete stop every time a plane approaches, so as not to flush birds into its path.
Things are more peaceful and less stop-and-go along the taxiway to the Reef Runway, which is inactive during our ride-along. Phelps points out a small flock of decoy golden plovers, placed in the grass to suggest that this is a better place for plovers than the runway median. Several yards away we spot a small flock of live plovers, and we keep driving, leaving them undistrubed.
At a bend in one of the airport’s drainage canals, Phelps points out a plastic coyote, or “predator effigy,” as he calls it. This is one of the tools that the birds figure out quickly and will actually perch on and poop all over if it’s left in one place for more than a day or so—not that it isn’t a convincing fake. “Pilots have reported dogs on the runway, and we’ve gone out there to respond and realized they’re reporting our predator effigy,” Phelps says.
Occasionally, Wildlife Services rounds up “escaped cargo,” cats and dogs that bolt from their cargo carriers. Usually the pets are safely returned to their owners. But not always. “There was an escaped cargo that was run down on the runway,” Phelps says. “It escaped at night, and the air crew just said, ‘It went that way.’”
Rutka stops the truck by the seawall on the Reef Runway, and we test fire the CODA All Purpose Net Gun, a bolt-action, .308 caliber, escaped-cargo-catching tool. “I gotta warn you, it’s got a pretty good kick to it,” Phelps says, before we pull the trigger and nearly dislocate our shoulder. For catching birds, Rutka carries The Super Talon Animal Catcher, a smaller net gun that looks like a flashlight, and is more our speed. On this day, the CO2 cartridge that powers it malfunctions, so we don’t get to try it.
Further along the 2.5-mile runway, we hike into an area of scrubby kiawe trees to a large cage with a netted, spring-triggered lid. This is one of the two Swedish goshawk traps Wildlife Services acquired a few months ago to catch owls.
Common barn owls and short-eared Hawaiian owls, pueo, are both found at Honolulu International. “The pueo are the most curious and more of a challenge in terms of hazing,” says Rutka, who works mainly at night and knows his nocturnal adversaries well. “Sometimes it feels like they’re playing with me.”
The owl traps have yet to catch an owl, but Rutka thinks it’s just a matter of finding the right bait. So far he’s tried small birds, rats, and a mix of birds and rats. Tonight he’s going to test small, pet-shop mice. “It’s all trial and error” he says. (As it turns out, small, pet-shop mice didn’t work either.)
As we head across the airport to bait the second owl trap, we stop at an evaporation pond, where runoff collects after rainstorms, attracting stilts, ducks, moorhens and other water fowl. A propane-powered cannon, permanently mounted beside the pond, works on a timer, firing at regular intervals to scare off the birds. It’s not foolproof. As soon as the birds figure out the timer intervals, they cease to flee the cannon’s boom.
After depositing the remaining mice in the second owl trap, we go to clear out the live traps, enclosures with bird feed, water and enough headroom for a wildlife officer to stand upright.
Rutka wades into the commotion of fluttering wings and flying feathers to net the mynahs, doves, pidgins and sparrows inside. He loads them into carriers for transport back to The Cave, where they will be tested for West Nile virus then euthanized with carbon dioxide.
Herein lies the dark flip side of bird scaring: bird killing. Or rather, as the bird scarers refer to it, “applying lethal control.”
The second shotgun Rutka carries in the passenger seat of his truck isn’t for pyroing birds. It’s for lethally controlling them. How often wildlife officers apply the ultimate tool in their bag of tricks varies. “Sometimes it’s 12 times a month, sometimes its 12 or 15 times a day,” Phelps says.
It’s hard to put a happy face on bird killing, no matter what the greater good. When the Wildlife Service guys at the airport end up in the public spotlight, it’s usually with dead birds at their feet. That happened on Maui in 2003, when officers shot two tundra swans that had taken up residence in a pond near Kahului Airport, setting off a public outcry.
It happened again last winter, after the public learned that Wildlife Services had shot a snowy owl on a runway at Honolulu International Airport. It was Hawaii’s first documented visit by a snowy owl, and word quickly spread on the birding blogs.
Soon after, The New York Times ran a story on an unusual surge in snowy owls across the northern United States. The Times quoted one owl expert as saying, with astonishment, “One showed up at the airport in Hawaii, and they shot it. … It’s the first ever in Hawaii and they shot it!”
The subtext was clear: Trigger-happy government gunmen mow down special visitor.
When we delicately ask Phelps who actually shot the owl, he pauses for a moment, then says, “What I will say is that I am the one who authorized the lethal control.”
Just when we think that’s all we’re going to get out of him, he says, “I don’t know if there’s anything Erik wants to add.”
As it turns out, it was Rutka who spent two hours trying to chase the snowy owl from the runway. He charged it with his truck. He pyroed it five times. He tried to net it with the Super Talon Animal Catcher, but he could never get close enough.
“It was weird,” he says. “He just kept hopping out of my reach, but he wouldn’t leave.”
Finally, around 10 a.m., during the airport’s morning rush hour, and with Phelps’ approval, Rutka loaded a shotgun with birdshot and applied the lethal control.
That the snowy owl had to die makes sense to us. What’s harder to understand is the existence of the cattle egret rookery, that mangrove island in Keehi Lagoon, just a third of a mile from the end of the runway. Hundreds of birds take to the sky from there every morning and flock back every evening. Wouldn’t the airport be safer if Wildlife Services mowed down the mangroves and sent the egrets packing?
Yes, Phelps says, probably. But it’s not that simple.
Wildlife Services has recommended and continues to recommend removal of the cattle egret rookery (and other prime bird habitats at the airport) to the state, but as a nonregulatory federal agency whose commercial-airport-management programs are entirely funded by the state Department of Transportation, that’s as much as it can do.
“My guess is, budget-wise, it’s not at the top of the priority list,” Phelps says. “We don’t let the issue fall off the table, but on the totem pole of hazards it may not be feasible in certain people’s eyes.” Then he adds that, if the rookery were removed, the birds could relocate to a spot that might even worsen the problem.
In the meantime, though, the cattle egret seem to have determined that the airport—although it’s just a short hop from home—is not the most desirable feeding ground.
A decade ago, before the FAA required airports to beef up their wildlife-management programs, you might see 50 to 100 cattle egrets following the grass cutters along the runways, feasting on freshly exposed insects, Phelps says. “Today, on a really good day—or, I should say, a bad day— we’ll see at most 10 to 15 egrets,” he says.
Later that evening, after we chase the wayward egret along the runway and pyro it back toward Keehi Lagoon, we cruise a drainage canal in the northeast corner of the airport, looking for black-crowned heron to harass. Overhead, a few cattle egrets fly by. Then a few more fly by, and a few more. They will keep coming until dusk, all following the line of the canal back to their rookery, and avoiding the runway.
Ten years ago, this was not their route. But now, knowing they can expect harassment if they fly closer to the runways, it is.
It’s tempting to think of the government bird scarers, with their empty owl traps, radio-controlled toys and poop-covered predatory effigies, as so many Wiley E. Coyotes. Yet somehow they’ve persuaded hundreds of cattle egret to fly around the end of the runway, not over it. They cannot hold back the tide, but they have redirected it.
Apparently, they are doing something right.