Tall Grasses Might Be Key to Cutting Birdstrikes

An Audubon chapter is partnering with Dayton International Airport to reduce bird-aircraft collisions.

When birds and planes mix, the results can be deadly. Between 1990 and 2012, birdstrikes in the United States killed 23 people and injured 240, damaged nearly 12,000 aircraft, and slew more than 120,000 birds. But reducing the carnage may be as simple as letting the grass grow.

Many airports have large expanses of turf, mowed regularly to a length of about eight inches. Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm in Ohio has partnered with the Dayton International Airport on a different approach, planting tallgrass prairie near the airfield instead of mowing or planting crops. The thinking is that this will deter the larger birds that can bring down a plane, like geese and gulls, since they tend to avoid longer vegetation, which hinders their ability to spot predators, says Charity Krueger, executive director of Aullwood Audubon. Smaller, less dangerous birds, such as sparrows and meadowlarks, tend to hide in the longer growth for safety. The Dayton airport aims to replace as many as 1,100 acres of its surrounding land with tallgrass prairie.

It’s the first such endeavor at a commercial airfield, though six military airfields in the eastern United States are also converting swaths of turf-grass to switchgrass. If they show that the approach decreases birdstrikes, efforts to replant native grasses near runways could take root across the country, says Krueger. “By working locally, it means we can have significant impact nationally.”

Limiting birdstrikes is the primary objective, but the benefits don’t stop there. The vegetation provides critical habitat for threatened species like the local Henslow’s sparrow. And it will likely reduce the airport’s carbon footprint by scaling back on the use of agricultural equipment, and lighten its chemical load thanks to the reduced use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

This story originally ran in the May-June 2014 issue as "Safer Skies."