Flight Risk: Death Sentences for Geese Near NYC Airports

FAA Proposes Keeping Bird Strike Data Under WrapsABC News Photo Illustration
The Federal Aviation Administration -- already reluctant to provide information about bird strikes following the emergency landing of US Airways flight 1549 -- has formally proposed putting a lid on that information.

Five months after Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger safely landed his plane in the Hudson River after hitting a flock of geese, the time has come to lessen the problem.

Starting this week, about 2,000 Canada geese living within striking distance of New York City's John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports are being removed and euthanized in the name of airport safety. It's part of an ongoing program to deal with the airport hazard, pegged to the time of year when geese are unable to fly away during molting season.

"We're not doing wildlife any favors by allowing them to be at the airport," said Michael Begier, national coordinator for the USDA's airport wildlife hazards program.

The program to herd geese into fenced areas, put them into crates and euthanize them will get underway at about 40 parks and wastewater treatment plants within five miles of the airports, including Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and Fort Totten Park. And though the geese that struck Sullenberger's plane were migratory geese as opposed to the ones that live near the airport, the "Miracle on the Hudson" highlighted the problem.

"The serious dangers that Canada geese pose to aviation became all too clear when geese struck US Airways Flight 1549," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a June 11 statement.

"The incident served as a catalyst to strengthen our efforts in removing geese from, and discouraging them from nesting on, city property near our runways," Bloomberg added.

Because Canada Geese are afforded protections under the law known as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, they can only be killed with permission. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given USDA a permit for the project.

But not everyone agrees that killing geese is the answer to preventing bird strikes.

"You're not going to do it by killing those 2,000 birds," said David Feld, national program director of Geese Peace, a group that proposed non-lethal methods in 2004, but was not given the green light to work with the city.

"Airports have to change the habitat or change the environment so that geese do not want to be there or can't get there," he added.

To that end, New York's program also includes filling in a depression at Riker's Island, less than a mile from LaGuardia, and installing signs reminding people not to feed the geese.

"We certainly recognize the concern that people have and we recognize the value of wildlife and that's why we strongly believe in an integrated approach to management," said USDA public affairs specialist for wildlife services Carol Bannerman.

"When you find something that's attractive to them like this depression, you should fill it in," Begier said. But he added that "doesn't mean we shouldn't address the safety issue that's confronting us now" by reducing the population.

"The population of Canada geese is at an elevated level across the entire eastern seaboard," he said. "To move them elsewhere might be bringing the problem to someone else, so to speak."

Bird Strikes: The View From the Cockpit

Hitting birds during takeoff is a problem that pilots encounter all over the world.

"As soon as they were ingested by the engine, the engine first stalled, then broke apart, then exploded," pilot Antonio Carlos Arantes De Biasi told ABCNews.com today. De Biasi safely landed the Varig Airlines plane on a single engine after striking a flock of herons taking off from Brazil's Goiania airport in Aug. 1993.

While his experience was extreme, De Biasi called bird strikes "very common" and said their unpredictable nature makes them more dangerous than ice.

"Birds, well, it depends on your skill and your luck, because you don't even know when you'll be hit," he said.

But bird strikes are of particular concern around New York, where a congested flight path overlaps with the birds' Atlantic flyway.

"There were many birds," Sullenberger told members of the National Transportation Safety Board who gathered last week to hear more about his Jan. 15 emergency landing. "They were very large, and they filled the entire windscreen."

Sullenberger also said warnings pilots get about birds aren't always helpful.

"In my experience, the warnings we get are general in nature and not specific and therefore have limited usefulness," he testified.

After Sullenberger's splash landing in January, people pressed to know how often planes hit birds. At first the Federal Aviation Administration said the information was classified, but later changed its mind, making its database public in late April.

The information released included reports of fewer than 3,000 bird strikes per year for the first several years of reporting from 1990 through 1994. The numbers increase from there, hitting a peak of 9,650 bird strikes in 2007. In total, FAA data indicates there have been more than 73,000 bird strikes in the United States in the past eight years.

Sullenberger's heroic tale may have brought more attention to the issue, but it was actually a "very, very close call" on an airplane in 2003 that prompted New York City to take action, Begier said.

That's when officials started using various tactics to remove geese from the region, such as oiling Canada goose eggs to prevent more geese from hatching and using noisemakers, fireworks and even falcons to scare them away.

"Birds are a hazard," De Biasi said Monday.

"I think every airport should have bird hazard protection plans," he added.

ABC News' Ki Mae Heussner and Sarah Netter contributed to this report.