Feathered Friend or Fatal Foe?

Balancing aviation safety with wildlife interests in bird strike problem.

Jan. 18, 2008— -- 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.

The supervisor keeps the airfield clear of birds and other wildlife, as well as food or other items that might attract them. And when the wildlife are in the way of aircraft, the airport turns to a variety of tools -- from noisemakers and large fireworks to recorded birds calls – to keep birds off the runways and the surrounding areas.

To make the habitat less attractive to the geese, gulls and other animals that are fond of the area, the airport removes standing water (as the birds are drawn to fresh water).

The agency also removes shrubs and other vegetation that allows birds to nest and plants grass species that are undesirable to birds.

Some airports use falcons to help control the bird populations.

Egg "addling," or oiling, is another effective technique. The process involves coating the eggs with vegetable oil so that the goslings are deprived of oxygen and never hatch.

Targeting Canada Geese

But, the Port Authority says these methods are not always enough.

Since 2004, the agency's bird control plan has euthanized more than 1,200 Canada geese, DiFulco said.

Through a program that specifically targets the geese, airport wildlife managers round up the geese when they're in their flightless phase, euthanize them and then send the carcasses to a poultry processing facility. The meat is then distributed to food pantries. The airport also shoots and traps the birds to help control the populations.

"We have always put safety first," DiFulco said, adding that necessary measures include lethal methods. "We couldn't operate an airport without an approved and effective program."

Rounding Up Birds Is "Knee-Jerk" Approach

Environmentalists, however, contend that euthanizing goose populations provides only a short-term solution.

"We certainly hope the Port Authority revisits and steps up these non-lethal options as opposed to taking a knee-jerk reaction that would again kill hundreds of defenseless baby geese," the New York-based United Action for Animals (UAA) said in response to Thursday's accident.

Instead of rounding up the birds, Jennifer Panton, UAA's president, said the Port Authority needs to amplify efforts to make the ground cover at Riker's Island less desirable for the birds. That approach would not only be in the best interest of the animals but would also more effectively clear the area and increase passenger safety.

Four years ago, she said, her group and others tried to lobby the city to expand non-lethal ways of controlling the birds, but the efforts "petered out."

At the time, then-president of the UAA, Greg Kaskel, acknowledged that the greatest obstacle was the cost – nearly $1 million, he estimated, to sufficiently re-landscape Riker's Island.

Geese Don't Get Property Lines

GeesePeace, a Falls Church, Va.-based conservation group, also tried to work with the city to expand non-lethal methods back in 2004.

David Feld, the organization's national program director said his group presented a plan to the Port Authority but it was turned down.

"If this plan had been implemented, today there would be thousands less Canada geese in and around the port of New York," Feld told ABCNews.com, emphasizing that the group currently has programs in northeast New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Instead of outright eradicating geese, his organization argues that because the airport sits in the middle of one of North America's major flyways, a broader swath of the area must implement bird control measures.

"Our plan was much larger … it was a much more comprehensive plan," he said, adding that it encompassed 60 miles around New York City.

"Canada geese don't understand property lines," he said, adding that his program oils eggs on private and public property so that goslings over a wide area of land don't hatch. If goslings don't hatch, the geese don't nest and, over time, will leave an area. Because GeesePeace doesn't use lethal techniques, he said, private citizens and volunteers have been more willing to join their efforts.

John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife programs for the Humane Society of the United States, agrees that wider, more comprehensive plans could be explored.

"The one place they haven't gone yet is into the larger, regional programs," Hadidion said. Although his organization is not opposed to lethal measures at airports, he said regional programs that prevent nesting and prevent the birds from getting within the proximity of vulnerable sites, like airports, have proven effective in other parts of the country.

Andrew Maloney, an attorney and partner with Kreindler & Kreindler LLP in Manhattan, told ABCNews.com that the recent accident will likely renew discussions about bird problems at major airports.

Maloney said his firm, which specializes in aviation, had been contacted by the city last year to work on a panel to address these issues, but efforts didn't go very far.

He said the problem has been going on for years and is well-known, but balancing environmental interests with safety concerns has complicated the solution.

"Now that we've seen what happened yesterday, this is going to get a lot more attention," Maloney said.

ABC News' Sarah Netter contributed to this report.