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Fall migration has BASH program on heightened alert

Steve Baumann and Marie Griffin, U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologists, pose for a photo with two red-tailed hawks and a great horned owl Oct. 19, 2016 at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. The raptors were captured on Offutt’s airfield as part of the Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program that helps mitigate bird strikes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

Steve Baumann and Marie Griffin, U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologists, pose for a photo with two red-tailed hawks and a great horned owl Oct. 19, 2016 at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. The raptors were captured on Offutt’s airfield as part of the Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program that helps mitigate bird strikes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --

With the beginning of fall migration, Offutt’s Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program is working diligently to reduce the threat of bird strikes, responsible for millions of dollars in aircraft damage across the Air Force each year.

“Depending on the bird, the size and the number of them, they can do a lot of damage and put an aircraft out of commission,” said Marie Griffin, one of two U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologists in charge of Offutt’s BASH program.

 

Birds and aircraft have been coming in contact with each other since the beginning of aviation. It’s even been noted that Orville Wright chased down a bird with his first aircraft.

 

In 2009, the “Miracle on the Hudson” event illustrated the risks associated with bird strikes when Flight 1549 was forced to land in the Hudson River. This incident was caused by a flock of Canada geese that took out both of the aircraft’s engines during its ascent from LaGuardia airport.

 

Many of the planes that fly in and out of Offutt are valued at hundreds of millions of dollars and the location of the base makes bird strikes even more likely.

 

Situated less than two miles west of the Missouri River, Offutt sits directly where the Central and Mississippi migratory flyways merge. During the fall and spring, it becomes a major thoroughfare for winter bird migration.

 

“We’ll have about 80 percent of the bird population coming through our area,” Griffin said.

 

To complicate matters, wildlife refuges are located to the north and south of the base, providing a sanctuary for birds. With plenty of lakes, agricultural land and wetlands surrounding Offutt, the area is a perfect habitat for wildlife.

 

To help mitigate the threat of bird strikes, Griffin and Steve Baumann, also a wildlife biologist assigned to the BASH program, work with base operations and the flight safety office to control wildlife and the habitat around Offutt.

 

“I’ve been here since 1991 and it’s always been a factor,” said Lt. Col. Michael Hoskins, 55th Wing deputy chief of safety. “Steve and Marie are the heart and soul of the BASH program, but we all work 365 days a year to make sure we have a good environment that doesn’t encourage birds.”

 

To deter birds, they focus on making the airfield as uncomfortable and undesirable as possible.  Grass around the airfield is cut at optimal lengths to prevent nesting, foliage that provides cover is removed, and herbicides and pesticides are used during prime nesting and migration seasons to eliminate food sources.

“The three basic needs of any wild animal are food, water and cover,” Griffin said. You have to eliminate those.”

 

If that doesn’t work, cannons, pyrotechnics, or a Long Range Acoustic Device that projects digital sound files may be used to scare birds away.

As a last resort, permits are obtained to shoot, trap and relocate birds.

While small birds account for the majority of bird strikes at Offutt, larger birds such as water fowl and raptors present the greatest danger. In May, a turkey vulture was ingested into an Offutt aircraft engine that caused a significant amount of damage.

Griffin said they’ve caught six raptors in a single day.

The fall migration typically lasts through November, but Griffin said her team will keep working hard every day to protect Offutt assets.

 

“It only takes one goose,” Griffin said.