COVID-19 and Wildlife implications

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Last week, Ahmed El-Sayed – Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Power Engineering, Zagazig University made a LinkedIn post titled “Covid-19 and bird strike” that raised a few questions.

Read on to check the post:

Ahmed El-Sayed – Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Power Engineering,

Presently, many airports are partially closed, airlines suspended their flights and grounded 30-85% of its fleet. Air traffic is greatly avoided due to the crowds of passengers in closed environment of airports. Some airliners takeoff with few passengers.
This calmness in airports and staff activities may provide the best environment for bird life and breeding; where shelter, food and water are available.
As I described in my book (Bird Strike in Aviation-Wiley, July 2019), there several methods for active and passive management for birds.
AUDITORY (or BIOACOUSTIC) methods which use pyrotechnic, gas cannon and bioacoustics techniques
VISUAL methods; including lasers, falconry, dogs, scarecrow, pulsating lights, scaring aircraft, robotic peregrine,
LETHAL techniques; including shooting, live trapping, removal of nests and young, egg manipulation
CHEMICAL REPELLENTS including Anthraquinone, Methyl Anthranilate
EXCLUSION, including netting, porcupine wire, fine wires, bird balls
HABITAT MODIFICATION techniques, which include.
Food control, Water control, Shelter control, Managing Reforested Areas and Landscaping
I’m worried population of birds will drastically increase and a greater bird strike threat will evolve.

The last sentence is worrying and the following questions arose, which were promptly answered by experts in the field:

How do you think the decline in air traffic will affect wildlife in airports?

How do you think airports should act in this regard?

What do you think of the data currently collected by airports?

Gary Searing, Executive Director – Bird Strike Association of Canada

The decline in air traffic will of course result in a decline in total number of strikes, but likely not the relative rate of strikes. In fact, the slow down in air traffic may actually result in an increase in the rate of strikes because financial constraints may cause airports to reduce staff and curtail wildlife management activities such as wildlife patrols, mowing (which may be a good thing at some airports), equipment purchases, etc.

Clearly airports need to be fiscally responsible and will need to manage their resources to remain solvent. However, I fear that most airports place too little value on wildlife management and are interested more in meeting the requirements of regulation (which is a low bar) rather than being interested in doing the type of wildlife management that reduces risk and better maintains a safe flying environment.

The data that airports collect range from the bare minimum (i.e., strike data) to extremely robust at some of the large, more advanced airport wildlife programs. As a wildlife biologist that relies on data analysis with which to base conclusions, I have not encountered a single program that collects all of the data I would like to be able to have for analysis. Systematic wildlife surveys, aircraft movements by runway and aircraft model, time spent on the airfield on patrol, dates and location of grass cutting and many more aspects of wildlife management are either not done, or the information is not collected, or not kept in a form that can be retrieved and analyzed.

John Weller, National Wildlife Biologist at FAA

How do you think the decline in air traffic will affect wildlife at airports?
Wildlife on and near airfields have a high tolerance for loud human activities and our close proximity.   If the habitats (grass height, water impoundments, etc.) do not change then any reduction in air traffic would likely result in minor shifts in wildlife use (e.g., birds may attempt nesting in areas that have less activity/disturbance).  Although I do not believe a reduction in aircraft activity will significantly affect the numbers of hazardous birds and mammals using or crossing the airfield, part of that statement relies on the airport maintaining an active wildlife program.  If a reduction in workforce occurs that impacts the effectiveness of wildlife mitigation patrols, surveys, abatement responses and maintenance such as mowing and fence repairs then it is conceivable that risks associated with wildlife could increase.

How do you think airports should act in this regard?
All safety procedures at an airport are risk-related priorities.  This holds true whether those priorities involve hazardous wildlife, airport rescue and fire fighting (ARFF), driving procedures across active surfaces and many, many others.  Airports with Part 139 operating certificates have many safety-related responsibilities that are required by the FAA to maintain a mandated level of safety.  Concerning wildlife, an airport is expected to follow its Wildlife Hazard Management Plan (WHMP) and all components within its Airport Certification Manual.  But, not all safety aspects of a WHMP or (14 CFR Part 139.337) are created equal.  As per 14 CFR Part 139.337(a), “all certificated airports MUST take immediate action to alleviate wildlife hazards whenever they are detected.”  This would seem a higher priority than ensuring all bird surveys are conducted in a timely manner.  If airports become short-staffed due to illnesses (COVID-19 pandemic) then they need to set priorities using a risk lens more than ever.  The FAA has made it clear to all airports that we will work with them and their safety obligations to determine on a case-by-case basis the best, safest path forward.

What do you think of the data currently collected by airports?
Wildlife related data at airports can mean strike data or wildlife activity logs.  Both are critical in an effective wildlife program and both types of data have generally continued to improve throughout the country (as seen in our annual inspections). Improvements in strike data have been identified both in quality and quantity.  Positive species identifications have remained over 60% for several years and airports now take the time to report more non-damaging strikes that involve smaller birds than ever before.  Also, each year is a new record for civilian aviation snarge samples sent (free of charge) to the Smithsonian Feather Identification Laboratory. Having said this I will also mention that we can still do better both with the quality and the number of strike reports.  Larger airports tend to have more robust wildlife programs, more trained personnel to conduct wildlife activities and more funding to do so.  Smaller certificated airports and general aviation airports show marked improvements in their strike reporting but are still underrepresented.  Regardless of an airport’s size, the number of operations and the type of operations each day, documenting strikes and wildlife activities is important and easy.  Overall, airports provide a much higher degree of safety concerning wildlife risk reduction than ever before, and that reduction has its foundation in data.  The old adage of “you cannot manage what you have not measured” holds as true today as it did years ago.

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