into the wild

Plane vs. Bird: The Dark Side of Human-Aviation Relations

Photo: Olaser/Getty Images

Plane-on-animal violence has existed since the invention of aircraft. One of the Wright brothers struck a bird while flying over a cornfield in Ohio in 1905. The brother survived; no word about the bird, but we can assume the worst. In 1909, a mustachioed Frenchman named Louis Blériot was preparing to fly across the English Channel when a farm dog ran into his plane’s propeller and was blended to death. In 1960, a turboprop in Boston taxied down the runway, took off, promptly ingested a flock of starlings, and crashed into Boston Harbor, killing 62 passengers. As the Boston incident demonstrates, plane-versus-animal warfare is not unidirectional. As the Boston incident also demonstrates, an airplane — triumph of engineering, symbol of civilization’s ambitions — can be felled by a handful of short-bodied songbirds. Despite our machines, we are far from invincible.

A glance at the data confirms this conjecture. Untold hundreds of people have perished as a result of interactions between airplanes and fauna. The record-keeping, especially prior to 1960, is murky, and the media coverage since then is spotty. Manufacturers like Boeing have plenty of incentive to downplay stories that reveal the death toll a lone duck can exact from a 90,000-pound airplane. Instead, it is the heroic tales that tend to rise to the surface, like the crisp winter afternoon in 2009 when a plane flying out of New York encountered a flock of birds, experienced engine failure, and was safely brought to rest on the Hudson River by a pilot who was later played in a movie by Tom Hanks.

The dark side of avian-human relations came to my attention due to a friend of mine who works at the Museum of Natural History. Through him I learned that some of the taxidermied birds in the collection came from JFK Airport, where they had been killed in the 1990s by authorities responsible for controlling wildlife in and around the airport. I thought it considerate that the program had donated its victims to the museum. Yes, those birds had died so New Yorkers could fly to Orlando for a weekend, but in exchange they had obtained immortality in one of our great halls of education.

It had also never occurred to me that my local airport was patrolled by sharpshooters scanning the skies for avian threats, but of course it was. JFK was built on marshland, and marshland attracts wildlife. When it comes to aircraft, wildlife is no different than engine failure or hijackers or extreme weather or negligent maintenance. It is a peril that must be addressed. Questions about the modes of address are what led me to the Federal Aviation Administration website, and ultimately to the 4-MB, 362-page PDF titled Wildlife Hazard Management at Airports: A Manual for Airport Personnel.

The document, published in 2005, had been prepared by Edward C. Cleary and Richard A. Dolbeer. Two men — possibly Cleary and Dolbeer themselves — were featured on the cover standing on a patch of grass beside an airfield. Behind them, and at alarmingly close range, a commercial jet roared into the sky. The men appeared to be taking some kind of a measurement with sticks and wire.


I’d originally planned to skim the PDF for details that I could store in my mental file cabinet for future reference but wound up reading it straight through, like a novel. This was an unexpected victory: In the weeks leading up to the PDF I endured a total attentional crisis as a result of spending too much time on my phone, and none of my attempts at rehabilitation had been successful. It wasn’t until the PDF that my neurons started firing. The mind works in mysterious ways.

Or perhaps not. Terror, after all, is a reliable stimulant. The stated objective of the FAA manual is basically this: Here is how to make an airport animal-proof so that everyone can fly safely. The conclusion I drew while reading it was quite different; something more like: Oh fuck, it’s pretty much impossible to make an airport animal-proof, but here is a mixture of disturbingly analogue and unbelievably complex systems and protocols that interlock in myriad ways and are subject to every form of human error imaginable. Best of luck.

In fine “government document” form, the PDF features a pre–table of contents acknowledging the existence, on the following page, of an actual table of contents which itself is broken down by chapter, section, and sub-section. An organizational dream. Chapter One kicks off with a dizzying photograph of a British Airways jet soaring over Hungary while surrounded by a cloud of birds, each animal endowed with the lethal potential of a surface-to-air missile. “Throughout history, humans have been intrigued and inspired by the beauty of birds and their ability to fly,” the report begins. The smaller animals, of course, have a critical chronological advantage: while birds took to the sky some 150 million years in the past, humans only ventured into airspace a little over a century ago.

But according to Cleary and Dolbeer, time isn’t a problem. The problem boils down to a simple syllogism:

Air travel has increased in recent years


Animal populations near airports have increased, according to the manual


Animal-airplane conflicts have increased in recent years

The first sentence is a no-brainer. Globalization has ramped up air travel, especially with the proliferation of budget airlines. (Got $30? You can fly nonstop from Philadelphia to Puerto Rico.) The second sentence may surprise you, unless you’ve been following urban and suburban environmental policy over the past few decades. But it’s true: Some wildlife populations have grown thanks to protections put in place to curb our gleeful destruction of the planet. What’s good for the biosphere, however, is bad for airports. According to the most recent data, wildlife strikes — the FAA’s term of art — killed close to 300 people and destroyed more than 271 aircrafts worldwide from 1988 to 2020. Just this year, a charter flight carrying members of the Utah Jazz blew an engine when it hit a flock of birds. The impact was violent enough that some of the players onboard began texting family to say goodbye; eventually the blood-soaked plane was able to make a safe emergency landing.

Across the nation’s tarmacs, wildlife flourishes. Florida is haunted by the menace of airplane-curious alligators. Feral dogs across the nation lurk beneath piles of airport construction debris, awaiting their chance to dart into the path of an oncoming 747. In New Zealand, earthworms wriggle en masse onto the runways after heavy rains, attracting gulls. Raccoons, rabbits, caribou, foxes, and cattle: all potentially death-causing, though the vast majority of incidents are bird-related. Scientists even have a special term for the anatomical “goo” that spatters across a plane after it strikes an animal: snarge.

Right off the bat, it would seem to a layperson as though the FAA report were ignoring an obvious angle. Instead of blaming animals, why not blame the inadequacies of aircraft? After all, isn’t it strange that nobody has figured out how to build a commercial jet capable of besting a pigeon? But aircraft design, of course, lies outside the purview of this federal agency — the government doesn’t build planes; private companies build planes. So instead, the FAA turns its gaze to taming, razing, and denuding the airport sphere of fauna. “Habitat modification” is what the manual calls it.

In essence, habitat modification means making an airport as inhospitable to critters as possible. No trees, no standing water, no “perching sites,” no “loafing sites” (ledges, I-beams), no edible plants, no unattended dumpsters, no canals. A 10-to-12-foot fence topped with barbed wire should encircle runways. Drains may be introduced in areas of high earthworm density to prevent invertebrate invasions. Rapid drainage solutions should be incorporated to avoid the emergence of impromptu ponds following heavy rain. Exclusion techniques such as these, however, are mere table stakes when it comes to airport safety. And this is where the report gets creative.


Where fences fail — and they do, they do — active measures must be introduced. A cannon designed to mimic the sound of a shotgun blast may be scheduled to detonate at intervals throughout the day. An artificial grape flavor known as methyl anthranilate may be sprayed across turf. (Birds hate artificial grape flavor.) Woodchucks and prairie dogs may be gassed. A trained falcon may be deployed as an assassin to wipe out lesser birds. Deer may be shot with non-ricocheting bullets from a rifle equipped with a night-vision scope and silencer. (“When practical, the manual adds, “any deer meat should be donated to charity.” How grateful those charities must be!) A taxidermied coyote may be placed in a strategic location to scare off geese — though the report also notes that “such effigies must be used sparingly and moved to various locations to prevent habituation” — because even the dumbest goose won’t be fooled for long by a coyote that never blinks.

Reading a government-issued handbook as a literary work is an act of reckless malpractice, but I don’t think Edward C. Cleary and Richard A. Dolbeer will mind if I compliment them on the lucidity of their prose and the splendor of their euphemisms (the carcasses of strike-involved birds are politely referred to as ”safety investigation material”; employees are supposed to spatula the snarge into an envelope and mail it to a Smithsonian lab in D.C. for identification). And after hundreds of suggestions about oral intoxicants and propane cannons and noose traps, the report ends on a philosophical note, with a photograph of a plane cresting a setting sun and the reminder that “Birds and aircraft will always share the skies, and there will always be the risk of collisions.” If you can’t stand the risk, get out of the aircraft cabin.

Plane vs. Bird: The Dark Side of Human-Aviation Relations