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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 5 of 8)

Armed with a laser called the Avian Dissuader, a Wildlife Services officer aims to dissuade waterfowl along an airport drainage canal.

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.

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Honolulu Magazine February 2020
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