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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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.