Birds are killed at airport.
I recently received a disturbing report from a Forbush Bird Club member that birds are being shot at Worcester Airport. You can see the details of the shooting posted on WPI professor Rick Quimby's bird sightings website for Central Mass. (Dec. 6-7) at http://users.wpi.edu/~rsquimby/birds/gulls.html.
Though the local killing of problem birds just now is coming to light, the practice there and at other airports around the country is nothing new, and is actually standard procedure based on a management plan with guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The much-studied policies impact all FAA-controlled facilities.
The depredation, though, was shocking to local birdwatchers who have regularly made field trips to the Worcester Airport for many decades. The high, mostly flat habitat attracts a very interesting and sometimes distinctive local population of birds.
Every March and April, birders come to see and hear woodcock males perform their dramatic evening mating flight rituals outside the runway fences over the peripheral, lightly forested slopes that border Airport Drive.
In May, the surrounding short, native grasses have provided nesting sites for several species of sparrows, including lesser-known savannahs, vespers and - very uncommonly decades ago - the rare Henslow's sparrow.
Throughout the summer, and especially in September, tree and barn swallows hawk insects around the runway - and, to their demise, try to nest in the jet bridges around the terminal, where they're eradicated.
But winter has always been a special time for both birds and observers at Worcester Airport. Birders not long ago would routinely ascend the entry road from Route 122 and enter a world of uncommonly observed species foraging on the remaining fruit of crabapple trees that lined it. Cedar waxwings and rare Bohemian waxwings and sometimes even irruptive pine grosbeaks fed in them. With the aging of those trees, much of their fruiting attraction is now gone.
The late Fran McMenemy, my mentor and patriarchal field trip leader of Worcester's Forbush Bird Club, each winter would hope to see flocks of little snow buntings, horned larks and Lapland longspurs migrating from their breeding grounds up north to Worcester Airport, which resembles their vast, flat tundra home. Logan Airport, for similar reasons, attracts large flocks of winter migrating snow buntings, sometimes 3,000 to 5,000 at a time. Flocks that large can be a problem.
For decades, McMenemy would actually disperse birdseed for them in the parking lot. If authorities knew what he was doing, he surely would have been discouraged. He never suspected, however, that feeding them there would cause trouble, and from my perusal of FAA-reported bird strikes there, it apparently never did.
In Massachusetts, a singular exception to airport inhospitality to wildlife is Hanscom Field's conservation effort on behalf of upland sandpipers and grasshopper sparrows. Both rare and endangered species breed in the special grassland habitat found there. Each spring, MassPort avoids cutting the grass that constitutes their nesting site - the exception being runway safety areas.
McMenemy would be pleased to know that the fascinating northerly species that he secretly fed have been visiting the airport this winter. But he'd certainly be shocked by the thought of shooting them.
Birders recently witnessed a security staff member firing into a flock of diminutive horned larks. They also witnessed dead gulls being placed in plastic bags, held by an assistant. The killing is perfectly legal and prescribed.
In an effort to keep the area safe for planes and people, MassPort - according to Massachusetts Division of Fish & Game's Tom French - has a right with its state and federally issued migratory bird depredation permits to shoot 272 individuals of 13 species at Worcester Airport.
The number 272 seems a very strange, if not arbitrary figure. Why not 250 or 300? Why not 100 or 1,000? And why horned larks, snow buntings, and Lapland longspurs when the birds that notoriously cause plane damage to cockpits and engines are Canada geese, gulls, swans, ducks, and gigantic flocks of starlings?
While in agreement with airport administrators that those large birds may require shooting, state DFW biologists disagree with the policy of shooting shorebirds and songbirds, especially snow buntings at Logan Airport, a major staging area for the species.
According to French, some autumns there can be several thousand of them spread across the airport in small, loose flocks. The issue is how best to react to their presence. State biologists who are experts in bird behavior contend that if harassed by chasing and shooting, the snow buntings form tightly packed flocks that continue to increase in size and stay in the air for extended periods of time, swirling all over the airport in a much more dangerous state.
On at least a couple of occasions, this has caused 200 to 300 snow buntings to be sucked through a single jet engine, causing significant damage. It has been the DFW's position that if left alone, these birds will remain on the ground much more often and in relatively small, loose flocks. Though strikes may occur, their probability will be reduced significantly, and only one to a few birds will be struck at a time, reducing the probability of serious damage.
FAA's national statistics do show reports of strikes by these small birds as well as by flocking tree and barn swallows. The latter, to my surprise, constituted a major percentage of birds taken at Worcester Airport. In 2011, 35 birds of three species were reportedly killed there - 15 ring-billed gulls, five Canada geese and 15 barn swallows. I would have suspected that herring, ringed-bill, and black-backed gulls, along with Canada geese, ducks, and starlings - those species being implicated in the majority of serious national bird strikes - would have been the focus of elimination, and possibly shot in even greater numbers.
Worcester Airport director Andy Davis justified the removal of barn swallows that persisted in setting up nests in the jet bridge around the terminal. They were allegedly depositing wastes that could prove a hazard on walking areas.
As MassPort took control of Worcester Airport only two years ago, I was unable to get a report on the airport's shooting of deer or other mammals around the runways prior to its control. Many deer allegedly were killed there in the past, but a peripheral exclusion fence has eliminated the need to shoot any in recent years. Wild turkeys are another matter. Last spring, six large males insisted on strutting around the runway and had to be shot.
At Hanscom Field, security tried many alternative, nonlethal solutions to eliminate runway flooding problems caused by beavers. All failed, except for trapping. A lot of time, study and money was wasted in the interim. State biologists had prescribed that obviously essential solution long ago.
Public safety comes at a cost that many of us don't realize. Part of the price of our ticket to fly will always be borne by our wildlife. How much small songbirds should pay, however, is subject to debate.
Contact Mark Blazis at firstname.lastname@example.org.