Airport planning should take bird migrations into account


POSTED: Monday, January 26, 2009

We watched the news reports from New York with amazement, seeing the huge jet come to such a graceful stop on the Hudson River. The footage from Jan. 15 was arresting. We didn't seem to mind that it was played over and over, as we still could not believe all that had to come together to create such a successful recovery.

Birds were immediately suspect—perhaps the Canada goose (cousins to our state bird, the nene).

An article in National Geographic a decade or so ago came to mind. A researcher was trying to find a chemical that would discourage birds from taking over parks and playing fields.

Intrigued by his research, I called him. One of the things that came up in our conversation was his concern that most cities locate their airports as far from the heart of the city and suburban homes as possible, as do city planners when they plan space for landfills. This combination seemed to be an accident waiting to happen, and he'd begun taking notes about bird-related airplane accidents near landfills.

At airports across the nation, you might see small landfills near the tarmac—a convenient spot to cart trash from one flight as other workers quickly ready an incoming plane for the next takeoff.

Unlike humans, birds seem to enjoy leftover airplane food and are eager customers, jockeying for the best access to the discarded delights. We might see it as unsightly, but the birds see it as the best smorgasbord in town.

While we wait for confirmation on the dangerous combo of birds and planes in this instance, there is one thing we do know. On that miraculous day that could have started with a tragedy, a well-prepared, seasoned pilot became a Superman, putting a powerless, multiton hunk of metal and glass down on the water, as gracefully as any water bird we've seen come to a skidding stop on a pond.

The only difference is that the water birds do this routinely, many times a day, as their parents, grandparents and ancestors have done for millions of years. This pilot had only one chance to get it right, and he did.

We don't know whether the accused geese were on a regular migration route or were permanent residents of that area. But it's time to talk trash about how we might prevent this from occurring again—anywhere—whether in our back yard or anywhere around the world.

Perhaps the planning for new airports should include local bird experts who know the migrating patterns of birds as well as other bird habits.

And who can talk about migrating birds without noting that our much-loved plovers will be heading back to the Arctic in a few months? The visible reminder is the darker feathers the long-legged plovers are sporting these days.