A Brief History
On September 22, 1995, a United States Air Force Boeing E-3B Sentry (AWACS, early warning spy in the sky type aircraft) flew into a flock of birds immediately after taking off from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, putting two of the four jet engines out of commission and causing a crash of the big plane, killing all 24 crewmen aboard. Developed from the Boeing 707 jetliner, the E-3 is a large airplane, but not so large it could not be downed by birds. Birds pose a danger to airplanes of all sizes and types and can pose threats to humans in many other ways. Other than that, many birds are beautiful, and many are simply delicious! Where would we be without eggs? Much of our cooking and baking would radically change for the worse, but we intend to discuss the negative side of birds today, creatures we normally find attractive and fascinating. (Have you seen the movie, The Birds from 1963? Watch this movie and you will never trust a bird again!)
Update: News lines across the world reported that on September 15, 2019, a 76 year old man bicycling in Australia was attacked by a Magpie, a crow like bird, causing the man to fall off the bike and sustain fatal injuries.
Do you remember “The Miracle on the Hudson?” In January of 2009 an Airbus A320 carrying 155 people took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport and flew straight into history, I mean, straight into a flock of Canada Geese! (Note: These large, noisy poop machines are NOT called “Canadian Geese” as they are frequently mislabeled.) The pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, became famous for safely crash landing the big jetliner on the Hudson River without losing any passengers or crew, and surprisingly without hitting anyone on the river, either. Sullenberger, a former USAF fighter pilot, received richly deserved praise after the incident, which reminded Americans about the dangers of birds striking aircraft (or aircraft striking birds). The financial cost alone was estimated at $400 to $600 million annually in the United States 2013, and about $1.2 billion for the entire world. From 2002 to 2012 the number of collisions with birds and other (ground) animals doubled from over 6000 to over 12,000 accidents, and current estimates claim 13,000 bird strikes on airplanes annually. Birds account for an estimated 97% of all animal vs. airplane strikes, making them by far the biggest danger to aircraft. Geese and sea gulls are particularly dangerous to airplanes, as are any other large birds or smaller birds that join in huge flocks. Birds can down an airplane by smashing through the windshield or by putting an engine out.
For some reason, birds apparently believe they personally own the rights to the sky, which presents a problem for airplanes, especially around airports. All sorts of schemes have been employed to try to discourage birds from hanging around airports, including the use of noise makers, shooting the birds, using insecticides and pesticides to eliminate bugs and vegetation that attract birds, using falcons to keep other birds away, and incredibly, keeping pigs around runways and taxiways to discourage birds and other animals. Dogs are used in the same manner. Eliminating ponds and water sources that attract waterfowl is also practiced wherever possible. Efforts to eliminate rodents are made to keep larger hawks and owls away from airports are another technique. (Falcons are fairly small compared to Eagles and other large raptors.) Noisemakers include mechanical devices as well as pyrotechnic devices, some of which are triggered automatically by sensors while others are manually applied. Lasers and other lights are also used to repel birds, but care must be taken not to affect the vision of people, especially aircrew. Removing perching structures or making perches inhospitable to birds (adding spikes) is another technique, as is trapping and relocating the birds.
Bird vs. Aircraft strikes normally occur at low altitudes, especially during take off or landing. Birds generally do not fly as high as most airplanes, though there have been some high altitude strikes, as high as 20,000 or 30,000 feet, although such an occurrence is extremely rare. The faster the aircraft is moving, the more damage is likely to be incurred, which explains why a bird strike on a car windshield at 70 mph does not have the catastrophic effect of a bird strike on a jet windshield at 500 mph. Waterfowl, gulls, and raptors make up a combined 72% of bird vs. aircraft strikes.
As early as 1911 a Frenchman competing in an air race had to fight off an angry eagle that attacked him in the open cockpit of his airplane! The worst bird vs. airplane incident happened in October of 1960 when a Lockheed Electra L-188 flown by Eastern Airlines from Boston flew right into an enormous flock of Starlings (a non-native bird to North America introduced by idiots) that shut down all 4 engines and the subsequent crash into Boston Harbor killed 62 of the 72 passengers. This particular incident spurred bird vs. airplane engine ingestion standards to be developed. Even the Space Shuttle Discovery proved in 2005 that space craft were not immune to bird strikes when it hit a vulture, although causing no appreciable damage. Added to the cost of bird strikes is an unknown amount of money spent on trying to prevent such strikes and upgrading aircraft structures to resist damage from bird strikes.
Of course, birds can be dangerous in other way than striking airplanes. Have you ever been dive bombed by a bird at a golf course, public park, or even in your own yard? (We have!) Supposedly these attacking birds think they are defending their nests or something. That is the excuse given for tree swallows attacking people in our neighborhood as they take leisurely walks down the street this year. Or is it because they are inherently evil? (Just saying…) Pets are not immune to attacks from birds, either. You must be careful with small dogs (tiny ones) if you have large raptors in your area, lest your pooch get carried off as if it were a mere rabbit. Vultures have been known to peck the eyes out of young animals and then wait for the unfortunate critter to inevitably die so the buzzards have an easy meal. (I saw this brutality on a nature show about Africa.)
Then we have more insidious dangers from birds, such as eggs or meat contaminated with Salmonella germs. Bird flu spread by mosquitoes from birds to humans. Emphysema caused by working around large quantities of chicken poop. If you own a pond you know the dangers of Herons eating your tremendously expensive Koi. Even in larger ponds you get Loons and Cormorants eating your expensive fish you stocked. (At least that happens to this author and pond owner.) Cormorants are an invasive species that preys upon game fish instead of rough fish (such as shad and carp), and their poop is so caustic that it kills the trees they roost in, hurting habitat for other species such as Herons.
In fact, bird poop is a subject virtually any car, home, or boat owner is all too well aware of! Geese make a terrible mess of many parks and most notably around my pond. Seriously, not only is their massive quantities of green, slimy excrement disgusting, it is actually slippery and can cause dangerous falls. Plus, dogs want to roll around in the horrible stuff! (What is up with that???) A pox on the idiots that brought pigeons to North America, a sentiment agreed upon by statues everywhere.
Birds have been known to directly hurt people. Chickens (roosters) and Turkeys can deliver a pretty good slash with their spurs, a wound that could easily become infected. Unattended babies can fall victim to Vultures or large raptors. The kick from an Ostrich or other Ratite bird could be dangerous if not lethal. Parrots deliver painful bites to those foolish enough to pick one up, or people feeding the ungrateful feathered felons. Ancient Greek history (or myth?) concerns Aeschylus, the “Father of Greek Tragedy” who died (455 BC) when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head from a great altitude. Far from fanciful, birds are known to drop hard prey items such as turtles and tortoises from high above to break them open on the rocks below to provide a meal. So we have to worry about being bombed from above, too!
In spite of all this, many people, including this author, regularly feed birds for the pleasure of watching them and just for the nice gesture. (I feed hummingbirds with nectar, woodpeckers with suet cakes, and other birds with seed mixtures.) Some people go so far as to plant specific flowers, bushes and trees to accommodate birds and of course many thousands of bird houses are put up each year for the benefit of our feathered friends. Apartment-like multiple housing units are often placed to attract Purple Martins and Swallows to encourage those bug eating machines to colonize a specific area. (Good, natural mosquito control.) People make special houses for Wood Ducks, perhaps the most beautiful of the Duck like birds. In our development, a few people keep chickens for fresh eggs and even ducks. Heck, when I was a kid growing up in Suburbia we had pet duck (Mallard and White Duck cross) named Binky. She laid big eggs that often had 2 yolks. Many people keep birds at home and are especially fond of the talking varieties which are among the most intelligent of birds, putting to rest the epithet “Bird Brain.” Plus, there is the use of pigeons to carry messages (Homing Pigeons) in the days before telegraph and radio, used often up to and including World War I. Racing pigeons is a sport enjoyed by some as well. Then there is Falconry, a sport used for (originally) hunting and nowadays for recreation. Asian fishermen use Cormorants with a metal ring around their necks to prevent swallowing fish as a means to capture fish, allowing the hard working birds to eat a percentage of their catch. Without vultures and sea gulls to clean up land and water carcasses the world would be a much sloppier place.
Birds can be dangerous, obnoxious, and even disgusting, but they have a myriad of positive effects on humankind and the environment as well. Do you like birds? Do you detest birds? Let us know.
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite bird? What bird do you dislike the most? Are we better off with or without birds? What was the first domesticated bird? (We will give you this one! It was the Goose, over 3000 years ago. Or maybe the Chicken, as much as 10,000 years ago!) Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Alderfer, Jonathan and Jon Dunn. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th Edition. National Geographic, 2017.
Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
The featured image for this article, an aerial view port view of white jet aircraft in-flight that has a large disc-like black radar lying horizontally above two convergent struts, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States. The image shows an E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft soaring over Nevada after a refueling mission during exercise Green Flag-West 13-02 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Nov. 1, 2012. The aircraft is assigned to the 963rd Airborne Air Control Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.