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Clearing a path: In an effort to curb 'bird strikes' – collisions between aircraft and birds that prove fatal for the animals and dangerous for planes – Vancouver International Airport has enlisted the help of three raptors

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

Often, what’s up in the sky is both, and it can end badly – always for the bird and sometimes for the aircraft.
Vancouver International Airport, Canada’s second busiest, has turned to raptors in its latest effort to ensure the abundant migratory birds in the area stay away from its runways.

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

The problem of small birds

Birds colliding with aircraft can cause all sorts of problems, including shattered windscreens and damaged engines. But the airport’s trained raptors, which include a bald eagle named Hercules, a Harris hawk named Goliath and a peregrine falcon named Dash, appear to dissuade the birds from swooping into the path of the oncoming aircraft better than the hulking aircraft themselves.
David Bradbeer, the airport’s wildlife program specialist, said one of the airport’s runways has had to be closed in the past on windy days because of dunlin coming onto the airfield.
“After adding the raptors, we saw those birds being less and less willing to come airside. This winter, we’ve hardly had them airside at all,” Mr. Bradbeer said.

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

Unique challenges at YVR

Mr. Bradbeer notes all airports around the world have trouble with bird strikes and take measures to avoid them – YVR also uses border collies to deter birds.
But he said Vancouver is particularly challenged because of its proximity to the shore.
“We’re here on the Fraser River delta, which is an incredibly important winter stopover for birds travelling up and down the coast. It’s also a mild climate, a great place for birds to spend the winter.”

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

Where the birds come from

In 2012, there were 238 bird strikes at the airport, though that number includes close calls. Of that number, almost half were smaller birds like swallows. Only a handful resulted in damage to aircraft.
The raptors are supplied by Duncan-based Pacific Northwest Raptors, which raises the birds, some from hatchlings, and supplies the handlers. Above, Emily Fleming works with Hercules the bald eagle.

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

Not much training

“There’s not a lot of training per se in that these birds have a natural instinct to fly around and exhibit hunting behaviour,” Mr. Bradbeer said. “The only training that really happens is associating the handlers with a food reward and building a bond between the bird and the handler.”
The program began as a trial in 2012 and the birds have been on full-time duty since last year.
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