Birds in the News

Everything You Need to Know About Birds and Planes

An amazing photo of a crushed jetliner brings safety in the skies into question.

Talk about fighting above your weight class. On Tuesday, a bird reportedly smashed into a Boeing 737-800 on a domestic flight in Turkey. Now, one wouldn’t think the feathered creature stood much chance of damaging a 45-ton behemoth. After all, when a goose hit Fabio while he was riding a rollercoaster in 1999, the supermodel walked away with only a slightly chafed nose. But the laws of physics work in mysterious ways (at least to non-physicists), and this time around, a bird put a huge dent in the nose of a passenger plane.

Such mid-air collisions have been garnering more attention ever since a flock of Canada Geese caused 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson.” Here are some more things to know about the drama between birds and planes.

Certain species are more prone to bird strikes than others.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, between 1990 and 2013, 500 species of birds have been involved in collisions with aircraft in the United States. Pigeons and doves were the most frequent victims, making up 15 percent of all accidents in which the species could be identified. They were followed by gulls (14 percent), raptors (13 percent), shorebirds (8 percent), and waterfowl (6 percent). Meanwhile, at the species level, Mourning Doves, American Kestrels, Killdeer, European Starlings, Barn Swallows, and Horned Larks topped the list.

The problem is getting much, much worse.

In 1990, there were 1,851 bird strikes reported to the FAA. Since then, the number has steadily increased, reaching a record 11,315 in 2013. Some of this can be attributed to better reporting by aircraft personnel. But it also has to do with increased commercial air traffic, as well as a boost in populations of large birds like Canada Geese and Double-crested Cormorants.

Fall migration is the most dangerous time to fly.

FAA data also shows that 52 percent of all bird strikes occur from July to October, right after breeding season when populations are at their peak and when birds are heading south for the winter. There are also droves of immature birds taking to the skies at that time; their inexperience might keep them from getting out of harm’s way.

Most strikes occur closer to the ground.

More than 70 percent of collisions between commercial aircraft and birds take place less than 500 feet above the ground, and more than 90 percent take place less than 3,500 feet above the ground. Those numbers are even higher for non-commercial aircraft. The record height for a bird strike in the United States is 31,300 feet.

The collisions do occasionally kill people, too.

Very few bird strikes actually damage airplanes, but the ones that do can be calamitous—especially when birds get sucked into the engines. The FAA says that wildlife strikes have killed more than 255 people worldwide, and have destroyed more than 240 aircraft since 1988. They also cost the U.S. aviation industry up to $937 million annually.

The good news is that there are tons of solutions.

Preventing bird strikes is often as simple as blocking off ponds and any other areas around the tarmac where avians might like to feed or perch. Growing tall grass might also turn away certain species, like Canada Geese. Once birds become a fixture, scare tactics come into play: Gas cannons, pyrotechnics, falconers, and even paintball guns are some of the most creative options. For rarer birds like Snowy Owls, live capture and relocation is the preferred method. But arguably the most promising answer to this problem is avian radar, which can detect flying birds and let air traffic control know when a plane needs to be grounded, just like in stormy weather.