By CHRISTOPHER SPATA, Tampa Bay Times
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The hitman stalked his victims from a slow-moving pickup truck on a Wednesday morning. His dark eyes were intensely watchful, but, seeing her dejected, Cheddar grew impatient and ruffled. She wanted to kill.
The truck approached, the window rolled down, and the slender white heron-ox herons finally felt they were being watched. A few fled, but there was a straggler. “There’s always an idiot out there,” said Jackie Hurd, operations manager for Predator Bird Services.
Hurd loosened his grip on the jesses, the braided leather cords tied to Cheddar’s legs, and threw the hawk out the window. Without the natural gravity of a high vantage point, Cheddar used the momentum of the moving pickup.
“I throw it away,” Hurd said. “Kind of like a soccer ball.”
Cheddar rushed over and grabbed the slowest egret in its talons, pinning it to the grass. Then she ate. It sounded like someone tearing up an old dish towel. A commercial jet descended from the fog above.
Hurd, a falconer, and Cheddar, a juvenile Harris falcon, are contractors hired by Tampa International Airport to drive in a few times a month and deal with unwanted guests.
It’s a 3,000-year-old, man-made method to combat a 100-year-old man-made problem.
Airfield Operations Compliance Officer Brett Bell is the guy driving the truck.
Planes take off and land at Tampa International Airport every day, carrying thousands of passengers blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the giant, grassy fields below. Bell and his small team are the dots there, on the lookout for even smaller dots – herons, egrets, red-headed vultures, pigeons, gulls, etc. – threatening to damage or bring down aircraft.
The average passenger was probably unaware that birds were a danger until 2009. Then, a flock of Canada geese took out both engines of a LaGuardia Airbus A320, leading to the spectacular, casualtyless landing dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson,” and a decent movie starring Tom Hanks.
Birds hanging out at Tampa International can collide with fenders and windshields in what are called “bird strikes.” Worse still, they can be sucked into jet engines for what is called “ingestion”. Strikes are not uncommon, and the vast majority are harmless – to planes, at least. Birds almost always die.
Ingestions are less frequent, but they do happen, and they trigger a whole ordeal of federal regulatory procedures and record keeping, including Bell or someone on his team scraping a little bird from the engine and sending it through mail to the Smithsonian to identify the species.
Federal Aviation Authority records show there have been 150 recorded bird strikes or ingestions at Tampa International in the past year. You have to go all the way back to 2014 to find one that caused damage, and even then it was rated as “minor”. However, the airport must remain on top.
Bell, a brilliant but focused 33-year-old former Air Force jet mechanic, has many overlapping responsibilities. The 3,000 acre airfield contains all runways, service roads, tenant buildings, guide lights and signs that must be maintained to highly regulated standards. (Consider testing a painted line for the right reflectivity.) And it’s involved when drunk drivers smash cars through the barbed wire fence or, he said, when a guy who’s late for his flight Spirit Airlines jumps a fence and nonchalantly crosses an active runway, suitcase in hand, before the police surround it.
But the most Sisyphean task for Bell’s team is to help mitigate the birds. The birds enjoy the airport, and despite the team’s daily work to harass them (“harass” being the airport’s official term used in the documents) with trucks and sirens and noisemakers resembling traffic lights. trick, as well as other methods we’ll cover soon, the birds never stay gone. They can get used to almost anything.
It’s only when you’re on the ground there, far past the terminals and shops selling ergonomic neck pillows, that it becomes clear just how much natural green space surrounds the airport. Wildlife includes coyotes, hundreds of federally protected gopher turtles, and walking catfish that, after a heavy rain, crawl out of Fish Creek, a creek bordering the airfield.
The main safety concern, however, is still the birds. Live traps, baited with pigeons, are installed everywhere. When they catch certain birds, such as red-tailed or red-shouldered hawks, the airport biologist places a federal band on their leg to track them, then moves them to a nicer and safer place for all parties .
Bell clearly appreciates the beauty of these raptors and birds in general. He raised a cockatiel that landed at the airport and adopted him as a pet. Accompanying Cheddar made him want to learn falconry himself. But he is also pragmatic about what needs to be done to protect passengers.
“They get a hit,” he said of the birds being moved from the airport, but banded so they can be recognized. “If they come back, it’s clear that they call the airport their home.” Which means they must be killed.
The other birds are not affected. Wildlife rules allow the airport to “take” exotic or wild birds like pigeons without distinction. What does it mean when Cheddar isn’t there? The answer came quickly.
A Muscovy duck, a large sucker with a red, warty face, was spotted lying on the airfield during Cheddar’s recent patrol. Hurd tried to catch her with a towel but wasn’t quick enough, so she let Cheddar fly and pin her. Cheddar was quickly taken back to her kennel in the truck. A duck that size could hurt her. It could also be bad news for a jet engine.
Would the duck be out of place? “Uh, this bird is invasive, so she has to…go,” Hurd said.
There was a brief discussion of options. Hurd carries scissors to quickly separate Cheddar-captured egrets from their heads, but those wouldn’t work on a bird this size. If they put it in a bag, they could euthanize the duck with the exhaust from a truck, but the bag they had was not strong enough. A shovel maybe? Suddenly, Bell appeared behind another airport van with a shotgun.
BLAM! A whiff of feathers.
This is how a situation like this is handled when Cheddar is not available.
Hunting was surprisingly good for the low season.
“I may not have to feed you tonight,” Hurd told Cheddar. It wasn’t just a flippant comment. Falconry, like aviation, is a highly regulated industry. Falconers must weigh their birds several times a day to the nearest half ounce to maintain an accurate weight.
It takes years of learning to become a general falconer, which Hurd, 34, is now. It takes several more to become a certified master falconer, which Hurd will soon be. She spoke to Cheddar in a loving, teasing way.
“Cheddar, what are you doing?” You look like a pancake,” she said as the hawk spread its wings and leaned flat. When Cheddar missed an egret, Hurd hissed and Cheddar flew backwards, clattering the side of the truck loudly as she flew through the window. Then she pooped on Hurd’s leg.
“Beauty and grace,” Hurd deadpanned.
After Cheddar landed a run on another egret, Hurd wiped the blood from Cheddar’s talons and realized something. “One more,” she said, “and we’ll tie the record.”
That would be six a day. Not enough to dent the bird population, but the idea, an airport spokesperson said, is for birds to associate the truck with a scary hawk.
With minutes remaining in Cheddar’s shift, time was running out. The truck approached a handful of ox egrets, not far from a runway where a Spirit Airlines flight was sitting with engines running. Cheddar flew towards them, then kept flying.
“No. No, no,” Bell said. “It’s our nightmare.”
Cheddar landed on the jet’s wing.
Hurd banged on the roof of the truck, screamed and whistled as loudly as she could over and over. Cheddar looked around, probably surprised someone with a window seat, then finally flew to the truck.
The airport is a monument to human triumph over physics, and Cheddar was that day an example of our control over nature – almost.
The truck left. The hunt was over. These particular egrets have lived.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.