Amazing Places

Airports Keep Birds of Prey on Staff to Protect Planes

When you think about birds running into plane engines, you probably feel bad for the birds. Understandable. But that's a big problem for planes, too, since they can cause damage and force pilots to make emergency landings. To counteract this growing problem, many airports are turning to the birds' natural predator: the falcon.

It's a Plane! It's a Bird!

You're probably at least somewhat aware of US Airways Flight 1549, the one that made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in 2009 after hitting a flock of geese — it eventually became a feature film starring Tom Hanks. Strikes like that happen thousands of times per year, and the numbers are rising. The FAA reports that there were more than 11,000 wildlife strikes in 2013, a 42 percent increase since 2009. That rising problem comes down to a number of factors, including the fact that planes are getting quieter and more people are flying.

To combat the bird problem, airports have tried all sorts of things, from sirens and pyrotechnics to flapping, falcon-like drones. O'Hare International Airport in Chicago even employs goats, sheep, and llamas to eat the plants that provide food and shelter for birds.

A Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is being prepared by personnel of the Fumigation and Avian Control company to be released to patrol the runways and air space over Mexico City's Benito Juarez International Airport on January 29, 2018. Several species of hawks, eagles and dogs are used by the Wildlife Control Coordinator to scare away wild birds, rodents, and other species that may endanger the landings or take-offs of aircrafts at the Mexican capital's international airport.

*Jaws Music*

They may get used to sirens and firecrackers, but nothing strikes fear into the hearts of lesser birds than a falcon. "Falcons are the great white shark of the sky," Mark Adam, the president of Falcon Environmental Services, says in a short film by Great Big Story. At the Toronto Pearson Airport, for example, Adam's company technicians set their birds aloft to patrol 4,500 acres every day from before sunrise to after sunset. According to Adam, the predators only kill another bird around one percent of the time, but it's enough to clear the air and let planes take off safely.

Of course, once you let a majestic bird free, there's no guarantee it'll come back to you. Handlers outfit the birds with radio transmitters to keep tabs on their locations and spin a hunk of delicious raw meat in the air to lure them back to home base.

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Birds are way smarter than many give them credit for. Find out just how intelligent they are in "The Genius of Birds" by Jennifer Ackerman. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer December 21, 2017

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