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.


(page 4 of 8)

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.

 A bird’s-eye view from inside the live trap.

“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.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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