After birds strike 2 planes, senator proposes allowing goose kills at NY wildlife refuge

NEW YORK, N.Y. - The problem of birds living near some of the nation's busiest airports is coming under renewed scrutiny after two emergency landings in a week and more than three years after the famous ditching of a jetliner in the Hudson River.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Wednesday proposed making it easier to round up geese from a federal refuge near Kennedy Airport and kill them, an idea that's meeting opposition from wildlife advocates.

A JetBlue plane bound for West Palm Beach, Fla., made an emergency landing at Westchester County Airport north of New York City on Tuesday. A Los Angeles-bound jet made an emergency landing at Kennedy Airport after a bird strike on the right engine a week ago.

No one was hurt, but Grant Cardone, a sales training consultant who was on the flight out of Kennedy and was filming video from his window in seat 1D as the birds hit the plane, said it was scary.

"I felt like the plane was going to roll over on its right side," Cardone said. "Those five or six seconds were terrifying."

Cardone, 54, said he texted his wife that the flight was in trouble and added, "I love you and I love the kids." Afterward, the pilot managed to stabilize the plane and land.

Gillibrand's bill would empower the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove Canada geese from the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge during June and July when they are molting and can't fly.

"We cannot and should not wait another day to act while public safety is at risk," the New York Democrat said in a statement.

But the idea of a goose roundup at a wildlife refuge that is part of the National Park Service has its detractors.

"It's the only bird refuge that we have in New York City," said Edita Birnkrant, New York director of Friends of Animals. "If they can't be protected in a wildlife refuge, then where can they be protected?"

Birds can shatter windshields, dent fuselages and ruin engines. The issue is getting greater prominence than it has had since January 2009, when Capt. Chesley Sullenberger became a hero for successfully ditching US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after a flock of geese hit it following takeoff from LaGuardia Airport.

Gillibrand's legislation targets Kennedy, where bird-management programs have been in place for more than 30 years. The bill would expedite the removal of birds from parts of the wildlife refuge that are within 5 miles of the airport.

Allen Gosser, assistant New York state director of wildlife services for the USDA, said the agency would welcome the legislation.

Canada geese are not native to the New York City area and are widely considered a nuisance, not only because of the threat to planes but also because of the damage they wreak and droppings they leave behind in parks and golf courses. A plan last year to kill hundreds of geese at New York City parks met with opposition.

The USDA has wildlife-control contracts at most of New York's airports including Kennedy, LaGuardia and Westchester. Besides rounding birds up and gassing them — or euthanizing them, as the agency prefers — its methods include scaring the geese with starter pistols, shooting them with real guns and putting corn oil on their eggs to smother the embryonic chicks.

There is one dog whose job is herding geese, but the USDA does not use the falconers who previously patrolled Kennedy. Gosser said a falcon can scare small birds away, "but it's not going to scare a goose. It won't scare many of the gulls either."

Bird strikes will never be eliminated, he said, "as long as birds fly and people fly."

Most bird strikes don't damage planes or force emergency landings. Ralph Paduano, a United Continental pilot who has flown for 26 years, said he has hit birds both on takeoff and on landing.

"We can't really do anything about it. ... If I was actually to see the birds I can't make any drastic manoeuvrs to avoid them."

But there is evidence that bird-control efforts near airports are paying off.

Richard Dolbeer of the USDA, who authored a 2011 report on trends in bird strikes over 20 years, found that an increasing proportion of bird strikes are happening at altitudes greater than 500 feet, which means they're occurring away from airports. Flight 1549, for example, was hit by birds at 2,800 feet, 4.5 miles from LaGuardia.

In order to prevent bird strikes at all altitudes, the study recommends measures such as refining bird-detecting radar systems and researching avian perception in order to develop aircraft lights that would repel birds.

Those measures would be favoured by animal activists like Birnkrant.

"The killing just doesn't work," she said. "We have to focus on learning to coexist with these birds."