Firecrackers, feathers and fowl play – when net profit results in gross loss

Working for an international organisation based in the UK, but with around 150 projects in 42 countries means that for me and many of my colleagues international travel is a necessary evil. The links between the aviation industry, carbon dioxide emissions and global warming are widely reported and I like to think the work Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is doing to protect forest offsets, many fold the carbon we produce by flying, resulting in a net benefit.

One thing flying does do is give one plenty of time to think and view the world, albeit from on high and through about 0.8m2 of glass. During my five years at FFI and numerous travels around Asia and in particular China, I have noticed another, less publicised, conservation impact of flying, namely the way different airports deal with the problem of bird strikes.

The impact of bird strikes was highlighted in January 2009 by the ditching of US Airways flight 1549, an Airbus A320, in the Hudson River. Whilst the actual risk of dying as a result of a bird strike is low (at about 1 human death in one billion flying hours), it is the financial impact, up to $1.2 billion worldwide that troubles the commercial aviation industry.

Photo: Stephen Browne/FFI

A quick look on the internet will indicate there are a wide range of approaches to combat bird strikes, essentially all based on the simple premise of reducing the presence of birds in airports. Some are technological, involving radar sensors and noise emissions, while others involve noisy fireworks, having the exact effect one would imagine.

Some airports employ trained birds of prey to scare the flocks off, and in some cases I read about, authorities are turning to habitat modification tactics, adding chemicals to water bodies in some instances, making airports less appealing. At the other end of the scale, many airports do nothing, seemingly happy for wings and jets to coexist.

This is particularly the case at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. Having been built on a former marsh, Suvarnabhumi is home to 1,000s of birds. Whenever I fly in and out of Bangkok I am amazed by the number and diversity of bird species present.

On two recent trips there must has been 100s of egrets feeding on the grass within metres of the runways.Departing a few days later, around 100 storks were flying around the runways and taxiways. These are both very large birds. The same is also true in the less tropical Schipol Airport in the Netherlands, where buzzards, grassland waders such as curlew and oystercatcher abound. It seems that these two airports have a rather laissez-faire attitude, whereas all Chinese airports seem to have an entirely different approach.

Being an ornithologist in a previous life, where bird catching for scientific purposes using mist nets was a common feature, I noticed that all Chinese airports appeared to have mist nets strung along the entire length of runways and taxiways. These are fine nets, not too dissimilar to fishing nets that can extend up to 20 metres in length, strung between poles, usually bamboo. Being almost invisible to the eye, birds fly into them and become entangled. When used for scientific purposes the birds are swiftly removed, fitted with a ring, measured and released. However, numerous observations at around 10 different airports in China (100% of those that I have been to) leads me to believe that the birds are just left in the nets until they die, but removed periodically, to be eaten I suspect, by the netter.

In 2007, there were around 150 airports in China (probably around 200 today I guess), which is set to increase to around 250 by 2020. On a recent flight in China I counted about 20 birds hanging in nets, so if that is representative of all airports, that constitutes around 4,000 birds dying in nets per day at Chinese airports.

I really do hope this doesn’t represent 1.4 million dead birds per year, but it could! Add to that the fact that some airports take an even more direct approach and actively shoot birds and our feathered friends face a most uncertain future. Although is that worse than the number of birds killed by cars I wonder.

So, whilst the part of me that worries about carbon might be satisfied in part by the work FFI does to save forests, I am not sure the part of me that likes birds is happy to know that so many are killed in the name of aviation, certainly something to think about.