Feathered Friend or Fatal Foe?

As officials investigate how a flock of birds apparently caused a US Airways jet to ditch into New York's Hudson River, aviation experts and environmentalists revisit a balancing act that weighs public safety interests against wildlife conservation efforts.

Over the past few decades, as a result of conservation programs and environmental laws, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, bird populations in North America have increased dramatically. Experts say the number of Canada Geese quadrupled from 1985 to 2004. And, the bald eagle, after three decades under protection, flew off the Endangered Species list last year.

But those successes in conservation have not come without hazards in aviation.

According to the Federal Aviation Association, the number of bird strikes reported in the U.S. increased from 1, 743 in 1990 to 7,089 in 2006. And, they estimate, reported cases only represent about 20 percent of the total number of bird strikes.

In addition to causing millions of dollars in damages, bird strikes have killed more than 200 people worldwide over the past two decades

Aviation experts and wildlife conservationists alike maintain that, especially in light of the US Airways accident, efforts to address the bird strike problem need to be re-examined.

But, while aviation authorities advocate a variety of solutions that include lethal methods, many conservationists argue lethal approaches are not only inhumane, but ineffective.

Public Relations Quandary for Airports

"As our human population has increased and we've implemented these wonderful wildlife programs, we've come in closer and closer contact," Richard Dolbeer, a retired scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture and a former chairman of Bird Strike Committee USA, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of bird strikes on aircraft, told ABCNews.com.

We have a tighter co-existence with wildlife today, he said, but in aviation – as the country witnessed this week – that co-existence also presents a host of complicated problems.

Ninety percent of the bird strikes in the United States are by species federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, according to Bird Strike Committee USA. The birds can be killed only with the permission of the Department of the Interior, Dolbeer said. But, he continued, although the DOI will grant permission if a threat is demonstrated – as in cases related to airports – environmental and animal rights groups often voice their opposition.

"It's a difficult problem to deal with for an airport from public relations and legal points of view," Dolbeer said. In terms of public perception, exterminating an infestation of rats is one thing, but eradicating a flock of birds is quite another, he said.

Safety Is First Priority

According to Pasquale DiFulco, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a dedicated wildlife supervisor constantly monitors and manages the airfield at LaGuardia Airport (the airport from which the ditched US Airways jet departed on Thursday).

Because the airport is so close to Riker's Island, a nesting ground for Canada geese, the airport also works with other local and state agencies to maintain off-airport properties.

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