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.
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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.