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The mystery behind continuing JFK bird strikes

May 14, 2012 8:11:09 PM PDT
Just a few hundred yards off JFK's runways lies the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. It is home to various species of gulls that during peak breeding times, can number in the tens of thousands.

"This is the dumbest spot in the world to have this breeding colony," said Steve Garber, Wildlife Manager for JFK during the mid-1990s.

A Federal Judge agreed 18 years ago and ruled in a lawsuit that the bird colony should eventually be removed. The US Agriculture Department agreed, and in a 1994 Environmental Impact study concluded that the relocation of the gull colony was the preferred long-term approach to reduce the potential for gull-aircraft collisions.

Garber came up with a blueprint for removing the gull colony. He says that it is one of the easiest things to do in the world. All you have to do is give the birds a "hard time" so they can't do what they need to do to set up shop, build nests, lay their eggs and raise their young.

Instead, the Port Authority and USDA opted for shooting the gulls and destroying nests and eggs. While this has significantly reduced some gull species, the breeding continues, as does the threat to planes. According to FAA data, bird strikes at JFK have shot up the last 3 years from 167 in 2009 to 256 in 2011 - a 53-percent increase.

"They suck in everything, so when they go through a flock like this every bird nearby will get sucked right in," said Garber.

The bird colony on these islands is thriving, proof of the Port Authority's and the Federal Government's complete failure to eliminate a threat that they know has existed for at least 40 years.

In November 1975, a pilot was accelerating the big DC-10 for takeoff when a flock of birds was ingested in the engines. This was the first miracle bird-strike landing decades before the one on the Hudson. The pilot managed to safely land after hitting a flock of gulls that started an engine fire. Jump ahead to 2012, the colony still exists right off the runway.

"They say they're good at this but they're wrong. The numbers show they're wrong," said Garber.

The Port Authority says they have eliminated more than 36,000 birds at JFK in the last five years. They also say while the number of bird strikes is up, damage to planes has remained the same since 2008.

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