Alaska News

Unwelcome mat: Hazing critters from airways

It's springtime in Alaska, and tourists aren't the only ones flocking to the airports.

Birds migrating north by the thousands inevitably pass by them. And hundreds of times over the years they and other wildlife cross paths with airplanes.

Aircraft collided with critters -- mostly with birds, but also other animals -- at least 26 times last year at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, according to a database the Federal Aviation Administration recently made public. Twenty-one of those run-ins took place from May through September.

Nestled on the edge of Cook Inlet, the airport, with its wide-open spaces and proximity to Lake Hood, offers an attractive resting spot for winged travelers headed north.

"Right now we're in the peak of our spring migration," said Marc Pratt, a wildlife specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture whose job it is to make sure animals aren't welcome near the Anchorage airport. "Everything's happening right now. We've got moose calves that will start dropping ... we've got migrants showing up."

This time of year, Pratt's crew works full time trying to keep wildlife away and harassing the animals that do stop in. The work has helped reduce the number of birds arriving at the airport and, therefore, the chances of collisions, Pratt said.



According to the FAA database, 687 animal strikes in Alaska -- most resulting in no injuries to humans or damage to aircraft -- had been reported to the FAA through December, the most recent month available, since reporting began in 1990.

"I think the coastal communities probably have a higher aptitude for bird wildlife than some of them inland," said Troy LaRue, central region airport superintendant for the Department of Transportation.

Anchorage's air traffic accounted for more than a third of the collisions. The Anchorage airport had the most reported strikes in the 18-year period, with 215. Lake Hood saw 21 strikes; Merrill Field had 11.

Most of the strikes in Alaska involved the commonplace: sea gulls, ravens and swallows hit as aircraft took off or landed.

But there have also been a number of unusual collisions. Nearly four dozen bald eagles have eaten propeller. Two caribou have been smacked, as have four moose and four deer. Six foxes and five coyotes have become roadkill. One year, a floatplane killed a river otter in Juneau.

Perhaps the most unusual animal strike in recorded history, however, is not in the database. The highly publicized event took place in 1987, before tracking began. That year, an Alaska Airlines flight departing Juneau crossed paths with a bald eagle. The eagle, holding a fish, was frightened into dropping its catch. The fish slapped against a window, leaving a greasy, scaly splotch. No damage was reported.


Nationwide, nearly 100,000 bird strikes have been reported since FAA tracking began in 1990. Reporting strikes is voluntary, so there are potentially many times that. The FAA estimates only about 20 percent are reported.

Bird collisions caused accidents that killed 16 people and resulted in more than 3,000 reports -- about 3 percent -- of strikes resulting in substantial damage to aircraft, according to the database.

FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said that the FAA began compiling the data to identify trends in strikes, but comparisons of one airport to another or between airlines can be inaccurate because of variables in data collection.

Wildlife strikes cause more than $600 million in damage to aircraft in the U.S. each year, according to Bird Strike Committee USA, a volunteer organization with members from the FAA, USDA, Defense Department, aviation industry and airports.

Most bird strikes are relatively minor, resulting in little or no damage and not affecting the flight, said Jim LaBelle, regional director for the National Transportation Safety Board in Alaska. The NTSB generally handles only a case or two a year in Alaska resulting in substantial damage, he said.

When a large bird enters a jet engine, however, the results can be catastrophic.

"It hits this thing at these very high speeds, and it has a tendency to break these blades (in the engine)," LaBelle said. "And as more break, they fly back and hit more blades and more break. And, as you can see, at the end of the jet engine it starts spitting out pieces of engine."

In 1995, an AWACS jet on Elmendorf Air Force Base hit a flock of geese and crashed, killing 24 people.

After that, airport managers began a more concerted effort to reduce the number of geese in Anchorage. The first two years the USDA was at the airport, 1996 and 1997, officials harassed about 65,000 geese -- they actually count them -- near the airport, Pratt said. In 2007 and 2008, they only hazed about 625, he said.

"So they've learned not to come back," he said.



His crew manages wildlife at the airport and the nearby Lake Hood float plane base.

They fire cracker shot and screamers, plant dummy animals and pester the moose with paint balls. They also try to keep animals out, such as with fencing, and to make the area unappealing to game, such as by keeping grass short or drying out ponds, he said.

In the early 1990s, airport officials took a novel approach to ridding the area of birds: They loaded up three pigs and sent them out to Lake Hood's Gull Island to feast on waterfowl eggs.

Things didn't work out so well for the pigs -- Larry, Curly and Moe -- who ended up as bacon.

The bird-control plan worked fine for a while, Pratt said. But eventually, the birds just took up nesting in another area south of the airport and the problems with gulls continued. So his five-person summertime crew patrols the airport and Lake Hood, harassing the wildlife full time.

"We're trying to make the wildlife as uncomfortable as possible so they just don't want to be here," Pratt said.

On a recent afternoon, he stood at Lake Hood's edge, peering through binoculars at waterfowl floating tranquilly on the placid water.


As he raised his single-barrel 12-gauge shotgun into the deep blue sky, it popped like a cap gun, lobbing a cracker shell over the water. A few hundred yards out, it burst into a white puff of smoke, its explosion echoing like thunder off aircraft hangars across the lake.

Birds leapt in the sky, circled and moved in as if to resume bobbing on the smooth water. So Pratt lobbed another one. And another.

"There you go," he said, watching the birds fly east. "You keep popping one or two here and there and hopefully they won't come back."

Find James Halpin online at or call him at 257-4589.