November 22, 2014

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Columbus airport officials seek ways to drive off starlings

COLUMBUS — Airport officials are examining their wildlife hazard management plan after a jet struck a flock of starlings on takeoff and had to return to the airport for an emergency landing.

The jet, an American Eagle regional flight carrying 55 people, lost thrust in one of its engines Aug. 17 before returning safely to Port Columbus International Airport, said Rod Borden, chief operating officer of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority.

“We periodically get bird strikes, but I can’t recall one that we would view as being that serious,” Borden said.

It took workers about 40 minutes to remove about three dozen dead starlings that had fallen onto a runway.

Starlings, which generally weigh less than four ounces and travel in large numbers, can seriously damage aircrafts. In 1960, an Eastern Airlines plane crashed into the Boston Harbor after a flock of starlings damaged its turboprop engines, killing 62 people.

“They are sort of like feathered bullets. They are a dense bird, and they fly in dense flocks,” said Richard Dolbeer, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s airport wildlife hazards program.

There are typically around 100 million starlings in North America at the beginning of the nesting season in the spring. By late summer, the starling population rises to an estimated 250 million.

Airport officials in Columbus have noticed an increase in the pesky birds, and might ask the USDA or an outside consultant to help develop ways to reduce the numbers living on or near airport grounds, Borden said. He speculated that new construction at the airport might turn over fresh dirt, exposing insects that attract the starlings.

Statistics from the USDA’s Wildlife Services Division indicate that, from 1990 to 2006, starlings were involved in 1,686 out of a total of 71,670 bird strikes by aircraft.

Growing tall grass on airport grounds and setting off loud pyrotechnics like propane cannons can deter birds from nesting at airports, Dolbeer said. Port Columbus uses some of those methods and also is considering cutting some trees.