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 8 of 8)

That the snowy owl had to die makes sense to us. What’s harder to understand is the existence of the cattle egret rookery, that mangrove island in Keehi Lagoon, just a third of a mile from the end of the runway. Hundreds of birds take to the sky from there every morning and flock back every evening. Wouldn’t the airport be safer if Wildlife Services mowed down the mangroves and sent the egrets packing?

Yes, Phelps says, probably. But it’s not that simple.

Wildlife Services has recommended and continues to recommend removal of the cattle egret rookery (and other prime bird habitats at the airport) to the state, but as a nonregulatory federal agency whose commercial-airport-management programs are entirely funded by the state Department of Transportation, that’s as much as it can do.  

“My guess is, budget-wise, it’s not at the top of the priority list,” Phelps says. “We don’t let the issue fall off the table, but on the totem pole of hazards it may not be feasible in certain people’s eyes.” Then he adds that, if the rookery were removed, the birds could relocate to a spot that might even worsen the problem.

In the meantime, though, the cattle egret seem to have determined that the airport—although it’s just a short hop from home—is not the most desirable feeding ground.

A decade ago, before the FAA required airports to beef up their wildlife-management programs, you might see 50 to 100 cattle egrets following the grass cutters along the runways, feasting on freshly exposed insects, Phelps says. “Today, on a really good day—or, I should say, a bad day— we’ll see at most 10 to 15 egrets,” he says.

Later that evening, after we chase the wayward egret along the runway and pyro it back toward Keehi Lagoon, we cruise a drainage canal in the northeast corner of the airport, looking for black-crowned heron to harass. Overhead, a few cattle egrets fly by. Then a few more fly by, and a few more. They will keep coming until dusk, all following the line of the canal back to their rookery, and avoiding the runway.

Ten years ago, this was not their route. But now, knowing they can expect harassment if they fly closer to the runways, it is.

It’s tempting to think of the government bird scarers, with their empty owl traps, radio-controlled toys and poop-covered predatory effigies, as so many Wiley E. Coyotes. Yet somehow they’ve persuaded hundreds of cattle egret to fly around the end of the runway, not over it. They cannot hold back the tide, but they have redirected it.

Apparently, they are doing something right.

 

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