Airport ponders growing bird life

More birds have moved to airport after shutdown of landfill incinerator

Posted: Monday, December 26, 2005

Not everything flying around Juneau International Airport gets clearance from the tower.

Having to report three to five incidents a year of aircraft hitting birds, Airport Superintendent Jerry Mahle said he is becoming more concerned with the increase he has seen in birds since the city closed its incinerator last year.

The district manager for Waste Management, the company that operates the city's landfill between Egan Drive and Glacier Highway in the Lemon Creek area, said the operation has people coming in to scare the birds away with noise-making pyrotechnics.

"We don't want to be a bird attractant," Eric Vance said on Friday from Portland, Ore. He agreed the main problem is with birds being near the airport's flight patterns. Crows and ravens are abundant, as are bald eagles and especially gulls.

Mahle said a mini-assessment of the airport's bird problem is scheduled to begin early this week. After it's completed, people can talk about the things that need to work for fewer fowl in the skies.

With the airport situated in the Mendenhall Wetlands, near what can be a tidal smorgasbord as well as nesting trees and salmon streams, birds have always been a problem, Mahle said. Information published about Juenau's airport warns pilots of their abundance.

But since Waste Management shut down its incinerators in June 2004, birds around the airport "have increased tenfold," Mahle said.

When he hears about an aircraft hitting a bird, he has to file a report with the Federal Aviation Administration. A duck can do some damage to the fuselage of a jet moving at 100 mph or more, he added.

A large bird - a crane or swan or an eagle - ingested in an engine would be worse. Damage would be greater still if the plane hit a flock of birds, something he has to worry about, he said.

He said he heard pilots commenting about the increase shortly after the incinerator closure. Waste Management at the time said the landfill stopped incinerating partly because it would cost the company a lot of money to meet new federal regulations on pollutant controls.

"It's a challenging issue," Vance said. "We're basically operating next to a wetland."

It also is difficult to know what number of birds at the landfill is acceptable, he said. At this time, Waste Management is working with federal officials to minimize the problem, he added.

"We're just spooking them," Vance said. People have been hired to shoot off "whizzers and boomers" to scare the birds. The exposed area of trash is kept smaller and it's covered after hours, he said.

Mahle said the landfill has been reducing "the size of the dinner plate" while the airport continues to work to drive away birds. Along with the pyrotechnics, they work to scare away birds with coyote and owl effigies.

Large raptors, he said, create the biggest problem, but gulls aren't as easy to drive away because they're more stubborn.

"Right now we have a massive number of seagulls," Mahle said.

Even driving them away from the airport, doesn't necessarily drive them away from where the planes fly to get in and out of the airport, Mahle said.

"I'm not sure how it will pan out," he said. It could be that nets will have to be put over the creek near the airport to cut down on the birds feeding on salmon. Dredging the pond could make it less attractive to ducks.

It also could come down to the city looking to move the landfill or handle its garbage differently, he said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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