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 7 of 8)
The second shotgun Rutka carries in the passenger seat of his truck isn’t for pyroing birds. It’s for lethally controlling them. How often wildlife officers apply the ultimate tool in their bag of tricks varies. “Sometimes it’s 12 times a month, sometimes its 12 or 15 times a day,” Phelps says.
It’s hard to put a happy face on bird killing, no matter what the greater good. When the Wildlife Service guys at the airport end up in the public spotlight, it’s usually with dead birds at their feet. That happened on Maui in 2003, when officers shot two tundra swans that had taken up residence in a pond near Kahului Airport, setting off a public outcry.
It happened again last winter, after the public learned that Wildlife Services had shot a snowy owl on a runway at Honolulu International Airport. It was Hawaii’s first documented visit by a snowy owl, and word quickly spread on the birding blogs.
Soon after, The New York Times ran a story on an unusual surge in snowy owls across the northern United States. The Times quoted one owl expert as saying, with astonishment, “One showed up at the airport in Hawaii, and they shot it. … It’s the first ever in Hawaii and they shot it!”
The subtext was clear: Trigger-happy government gunmen mow down special visitor.
When we delicately ask Phelps who actually shot the owl, he pauses for a moment, then says, “What I will say is that I am the one who authorized the lethal control.”
Just when we think that’s all we’re going to get out of him, he says, “I don’t know if there’s anything Erik wants to add.”
As it turns out, it was Rutka who spent two hours trying to chase the snowy owl from the runway. He charged it with his truck. He pyroed it five times. He tried to net it with the Super Talon Animal Catcher, but he could never get close enough.
“It was weird,” he says. “He just kept hopping out of my reach, but he wouldn’t leave.”
Finally, around 10 a.m., during the airport’s morning rush hour, and with Phelps’ approval, Rutka loaded a shotgun with birdshot and applied the lethal control.