Bird strikes increasing at Canadian airports

The number of reports of collisions or near collisions between airplanes and birds has risen at half of Canada's major airports in recent years, according to CBC News analysis of Transport Canada data.

The number of reports of collisions or near collisions between airplanes and birds has risen at half of Canada's major airports in recent years, according to CBC News analysis of Transport Canada data.


Bird strike database

CBC News has created a database of bird strikes over the past five years that you can search by date, airport or province. Click here.

A couple of international airports — in Edmonton and Fredericton — saw so-called bird strikes triple over the five-year period, rising from 12 to 36 for the former and three to nine for the latter. The figures are based on CBC analysis of data obtained through access to information requests from Transport Canada's Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS).

Ontario's London International Airport and Quebec City's Jean Lesage airport experienced a doubling of such incidents, rising to 15 and 16 respectively.

There have also been incremental rises at some of the country's busiest airports, including Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

The rise can be blamed partly on a growing bird population, but also ever-increasing traffic at airports, according to Richard Sowden, a bird and wildlife hazard specialist for the Air Canada Pilots Association.

"It's generally getting worse," says Sowden. "We are seeing the number of strikes going up."

Of particular concern are Canada geese, he says, which have multiplied at "incredible rates" over the last few years because of increased access to food and safe habitat, and they have very few predators.

Geese a rising problem

Gary Searing, president of Airport Wildlife Management International, thinks the rising numbers may simply be the result of more awareness about the need to report such incidents.

"I think that the reporting has definitely improved and, therefore, we see more bird strikes registered in the database," says Searing.

A reminder of the potential dangers birds can sometimes pose to large aircraft came Jan. 15, with the now-famous ditching of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 into New York's Hudson River.

Both the engines lost power when the aircraft hit a flock of geese after taking off from LaGuardia Airport. Veteran pilot Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger deftly landed the aircraft on the river, and all 155 passengers escaped shaken and bruised, but alive.

As in the case of Flight 1549, one of the birds that pose the greatest danger to airplanes is geese. Due to their large size and how they travel in V-shaped formations consisting of hundreds of birds, they can wreak serious havoc on a fast-moving plane, says Sowden.

Another part of the problem, Sowden adds, is Canada geese aren't migrating as much as they used to. Some of the birds end up hanging out near bodies of water throughout winter, causing troubles for airports located nearby.

It's an issue for Ottawa's MacDonald-Cartier International Airport, which is located close to the Rideau River and also has the Ottawa River further away.

"We don't want [geese] anywhere close to our airport," says Jane Foyle, director of airside operations for the Ottawa airport. "If you want to get Jane excited, tell her that there's a Canada goose near the airport, and Jane will get excited."

Ottawa's birdman

Jim Birt drives around the Ottawa airport in a pickup truck marked with his job title, 'Birdman.' ((David McKie/CBC))
As required by Transport Canada of all airports, Ottawa has a wildlife management plan in place spelling out how it will keep birds away from planes. A large part of its strategy for warding off feathered friends is employing a birdman.

Jim Birt, a soft-spoken man with an easy laugh, has been scaring birds away from the tarmac for 25 years. "And they haven't learned. They still come back," he jokes.

He makes his rounds at the airport in a yellow truck emblazoned with the word "Birdman" in thick, black letters, and outfitted with a laptop computer and air traffic control dispatch system. When he spots a flock of birds, he notifies the air traffic controllers — and vice versa.

Among Birt's weapons of choice is a black handgun he calls a "banger," which sounds much like its name, and a hand-held device that emits a sound like a bird being strangled.

"It makes them take off pretty quick," says Birt. "They move when they hear the banging and screaming going on. It does definitely shake them up."

Changing tactics

But although the birds temporarily scatter, they often come back.

As Sowden notes, birds are "marvellously adaptable animals" that require constantly changing tactics. What works for scaring off birds is often based on anecdotes rather than scientific evidence.
Based on bird summary reports, statistics from 2002 to 2007 show a 64 per cent overall increase, rising to 1,324 from 806. ((CBC))

To keep track of how plans are working, each airport is required to keep its own data on bird incidents and send the information to Transport Canada officials, who then tally the data for yearly reports. The 2008 report is expected by late June.

Based on bird summary reports, statistics from 2002 to 2007 show a 64 per cent overall increase, rising to 1,324 from 806.

Transport Canada also keeps an online, publicly accessible record of all reports of possible bird strikes in a database called the Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS). This data is compiled from reports from pilots, air traffic controllers and others at airports, and is separate from the airport reports.

Sowden estimates that at least one bird strike happens every day in North America that is serious enough to require an aircraft to stop a takeoff or return for inspection. Most strikes, however, cause little if any damage.

Costs associated with bird strikes range from several thousand dollars to over a hundred thousand, says Sowden.

Just to return to an airport, the airline incurs landing fees, plus ends up shelling out on a longer operating time for the aircraft and staff.

But for Birt, it's all in a day's work. As he wraps up his shift, he radios to the control tower using a walkie-talkie to tell them when he's done for the day: "Birdman off the field."