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Can We Keep Airplanes Safe without Killing So Many Birds?

Is slaughtering birds the best way to keep the wildlife away from airplanes?



TONY CORDOZA Getty Images

In 2012, on the flat, grassy grounds of John F. Kennedy International Airport, wildlife-control agents killed 10,123 birds. The species “depredated” at JFK, which lies just northeast of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife refuge in the New York City borough of Queens, included thousands of gulls, hundreds of starlings and mourning doves, and a smattering of more majestic species such as ospreys and the American kestrel. The long-running JFK depredation program is just one of many efforts around the globe to prevent dangerous, expensive collisions between birds and aircraft.

Perhaps modern forensic tools could lead to a less deadly approach. The DNA found in carcasses of birds killed by aircraft illuminates new ways to control wildlife at airports, a team of Australian scientists suggests.

The forensic investigation began with a call from airport employees in Perth to Michael Bunce, then at Murdoch University. “Look, we've got an entire freezer full of birds,” he recalls airport staffers telling him. “Do you want them?” Soon he and his colleagues had 77 bird carcasses to work with.

The researchers began scooping out the contents of the birds' digestive tracts and sequencing the DNA. In a 2013 study published in Investigative Genetics, Bunce and his colleagues matched the genetic sequences with known species of mice, crayfish and grasshoppers, as well as various grasses.

Such genetic analyses could inform how ground crews manage an airport's ecology to deter birds. “If there's available food for them, what do you do?” Bunce says. “Are you better off netting off waterways, poisoning for rodents or applying insecticides?” In Perth, his findings led the airport to install netting in waterways to control an invasive mosquito fish. Even if such research stops only one or two bird strikes, Bunce says, “it pays for itself many times over.”

This article was originally published with the title "No-Fly Zone."

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