Snow Geese flying past the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. Photo: Francois Portmann

Audubon in Action

Volunteers Are Keeping Track of Airport Arrivals of the Bird Kind

Planting native grasses around airfields could be the key to helping birds and planes coexist.

Two winters ago, three Snowy Owls were shot at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Their crime: loitering on the tarmac in search of songbirds and other food.

Airports have always been wary of raptors, geese, and other large birds hanging around their runways. Bigger, higher-flying creatures are more likely to cause potentially deadly birdstrikes, and cause thousands of dollars of damage to aircraft. Rather than trying to shoot or scare off problem birds, Dayton International Airport is trying another approach. It’s replacing formerly cultivated lands with tallgrass prairie—habitat that attracts harmless smaller birds, but not the larger, strike-prone species, whose enemies, such as foxes, hide in the long, dense vegetation.

Last year, the airport teamed up with Aullwood Audubon Center to expand the Paul Knoop Prairie, a 125-acre reserve that the center itself founded on airport grounds decades ago. The unlikely partners have added 270 acres of tallgrass prairie in the last year, and aim to plant a total of 1,100 acres before their three-year plan is completed. In addition to Aullwood’s project, the U.S. Agriculture Department has adopted two 150-acre parcels of Dayton International Airport’s property for long-term studies on switchgrass, a native tallgrass that provides food and shelter for birds like Northern Cardinals and Mourning Doves. 

Now, volunteers are helping to determine how these efforts are affecting birdlife. For the last three months, volunteers from the Aullwood Audubon Center have been prowling around Dayton’s airfield just after sunrise, scouring each of 14 different areas for birds of all sizes and logging their findings into a federal database.

Not all of these 14 patches consist of tall grass; turf grass, corn and soy fields, and existing sanctuary sites are included for comparison. Those different habitat types mean that volunteers see a wide range of birds on all the plots. “So far we’ve seen doves, starlings, Common Yellowthroats, Red-tailed Hawks, Killdeer, Barn, Tree and Cliff swallows, and Horned Larks,” says Tom Hissong, Aullwood’s education coordinator. (The team is looking for a few more bird-ID-savvy volunteers to help out until March; contact Hissong if interested.)

Hissong points out that grasslands are one of the fastest declining habitats in the world, and they’re all but gone in Ohio. His hope is that birds that exclusively inhabit grasslands will move into these restored sites at the airport. “In the new ecosystems we expect to see birds like Grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrows, Bobolinks, and maybe even Upland Sandpipers,” says Hissong, and few of the bigger birds that bring down planes.

Ultimately, Mike Cross, an environmental scientist with the city of Dayton who has led a major sustainability overhaul at the airport since 2012, would like to see the project inspire other airports to consider planting native grasses rather than continuing to lease out acres as farmland—something that certainly brings in extra revenue, but also attracts geese that feed in the fields and raptors that prey on rodents. 

“Our project wants to turn that thinking on its head,” Cross says. “If you factor in the hazard costs deferred, conservation costs covered, reduced pesticide impact, and offset carbon emissions, agriculture isn’t the best answer—smaller songbirds are.”

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