Airport officials aim to keep birds out

May 1, 2015

Migratory birds are making their way up north and many are looking for a nice pond or lake to rest their wings. But they won’t find a warm welcome at the Dillingham Airport. 

USDA Wildlife Specialist Jonah Rothleder keeps an eye out for birds flying around the Wood River.
Credit Matt Martin/KDLG

As the sun rises over the Wood River, Jonah Rothleder stands near the boat launch next to Icicle Seafoods. He’s counting birds. But birding is more than just a hobby for Rothleder, it’s his job. 

Rothleder is a Wildlife Specialist for the USDA. He is working on a year-long study to determine and minimize the risk that birds pose to the airport in Dillingham. He’s out by Icicle because it’s a common flight path for planes.

“They’ll fly over the Wood River upon take off or they’ll come in this way for landing. So right now we are seeing some glaucous gulls flying and some mew gulls,” said Rothleder.

Binoculars hang around his neck as he tallies the birds he sees. Rothleder says they need to know how many birds are around and where they frequently travel so they can plan how to keep them out of the flight path of planes.

Rothleder said that airplanes are essentially giant vacuum cleaners flying through the air. And a goose sucked into the engine or crashed through the windshield can be damaging to planes. You may remember what happened to US Airways flight 1549 in 2009 as it took off from New York City.

Birds flew into both of the aircrafts engines. The pilot quickly realized he could not return to the airport and land. His options were severely limited and the only place to do down, in fact, was the Hudson River in downtown Manhattan. - NBC News

You may recognize that NBC news clip from the event that became known as the Miracle on the Hudson because everybody made it safely off the plane. Rothleder wants to see that something like that doesn’t happen at the Dillingham airport.

Jon Taylor is with the Department of Transportation at the Dillingham Airport. Every morning at 8am the DOT drives up and down the runway checking for any damage, broken lights, or wildlife that could be a danger to planes.

“The sea gulls kind of make their rounds too, out at the dump and then they stop here,” said Taylor.

Often Taylor will carry a shotgun with him on these early morning patrols to scare off any unwanted fowl. As Taylor drives down the center of the tarmac, three sand hill cranes flight over head and land to the west of the runway. He said that's a big bird to hit something.

He stops the car and shots off a cracker shell, basically a firecracker to make a loud noise to scare the birds away. The cranes take off and land at a safe distance outside the airport fence.

Back out by Icicle, Wildlife Specialist Jonah Rothleder says there is nothing wrong with scary birds away, it’s necessary, but ideally you don’t even want the birds there in the first place.

“You’re not fixing the problem if you’re just making things go boom. You’re just putting a bandage on a situation,” said Rothleder. 

Rothleder added that all animals are looking for food, water, and shelter. If birds can find one of those things at or near the airport, they are more likely to stick around that area.

“They are coming there for a reason, why not just go right to the source and eliminate that,” said Rothleder.

Rothleder called its habitat modification. He says if birds come for a marshy area near the airport, dry it out. No water, no birds. After Rothleder is done with his study, he’ll work with the airport to come up with a plan on how to manage the habitat in and around the airport.