Nearly 70,000 gulls, starling, geese and other birds have been slaughtered in the New York City area, mostly by shooting and trapping, since the 2009 accident in which a jetliner was forced to land in the Hudson river after birds were sucked into its engine.
It is not clear whether those killings have made the skies any safer.
Birds took the blame for bringing down the plane that Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed on the Hudson river eight years ago this weekend, an event that inspired the Tom Hanks-starring, Clint Eastwood-directed movie Sully, a box office hit last year. They have been paying for it with their lives ever since.
An Associated Press analysis of federal data shows that in the years after bird-killing programs at LaGuardia and Newark airports were ramped up in response to the so-called “miracle on the Hudson”, the number of recorded bird strikes involving those airports actually went up.
Combined, the two airports went from an average of 158 strikes per year in the five years before the accident to an average of 299 per year in the six years after it, though that could be due to more diligent reporting of such incidents.
At Kennedy airport, which is on a major route for migrating birds and had a robust slaughter program before the Flight 1549 crash, the number of reported strikes has increased while the number of birds killed has dropped slightly.
“There has to be a long-term solution that doesn’t rely so extensively on killing birds and also keeps us safe in the sky,” said Jeffrey Kramer, of the group GooseWatch NYC, suggesting better radar systems to detect problematic flocks.
Officials involved in the bird-killing programs say they believe they have made flying safer, their strongest argument being that there hasn’t been a major crash involving a bird strike in the New York area since the “miracle on the Hudson”.
“We do our best to reduce the risk as much as possible,” said Laura Francoeur, chief wildlife biologist at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the airports. “There’s still a lot of random chance involved.”
That was the case on 15 January 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia and almost immediately hit a flock of big Canada geese. Two engines were knocked out. Sullenberger guided the powerless jet over the Hudson river and safely down in the frigid water. All 155 people on board survived.
While Sullenberger became a national hero, geese were targeted around LaGuardia, JFK and Newark by wildlife officials with shotguns. In some cases, birds were rounded up in traps and killed.
Port Authority data of bird slaughter around the major New York City area airports between 2009 and last October show thousands of smaller birds were also swept up.
Of the 70,000 birds killed during that time, the most commonly killed were seagulls, with 28,000 dead, followed by about 16,800 European starlings, nearly 6,000 brown-headed cowbirds and about 4,500 mourning doves. Canada geese come in a little further down the list, with about 1,830 dead.
Aircraft hit birds over New York on a daily basis, but incidents resulting in damage to a plane remain relatively rare and usually involve larger species.
Of the 249 birds that damaged an aircraft from 2004 to April of last year, 54 were seagulls, 12 were ospreys, 11 were double-crested cormorants and 30 were geese, according to Federal Aviation Administration data. The species was not known in 69 instances.
Close to 35,000 European starlings were killed at the three New York airports during that time period, but only one was involved in a strike that damaged an aircraft.
A starling, probably weighing less than 3oz, hit a JetBlue flight coming in for a landing at JFK on 10 September 2008, breaking a taxi light. The FAA recorded 138 other instances of European starlings being hit by planes without any harm to the aircraft.
The starling, while small, can still be dangerous. A flock of the birds was blamed for one of the deadliest bird strikes in history, a 1960 crash in Boston that killed 62 people.
Francoeur noted that lethal control represents just one way in which airport officials try to keep birds out of a five-mile radius around airport runways.
Officials trap and relocate some birds, use pyrotechnics and lasers to disperse others, and even change the habitat surrounding airports by planting grass and trees or introducing certain insects to discourage nesting.
Last year, the Port Authority signed a five-year, $9.1m agreement with the US Department of Agriculture to survey, manage and research wildlife around the airports.
At JFK, an official with a 12-gauge shotgun shoots birds from May through October as part of the bird hazard reduction program, which seeks to reduce a laughing gull colony in the Jamaica Bay wildlife refuge that had exploded in size.
“One must consider the consequences if this proven shooting program was discontinued and a serious bird strike occurred while the colony was still present,” Port Authority documents state.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 14 Jan 2017.
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