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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 6 of 8)

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.

An owl trap.

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.”

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Honolulu Magazine February 2020
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