FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. --
A juvenile rough-legged hawk soars through the skies over the Fairchild airfield. As the hawk flies over, he is drawn to a subtle movement along the grass perimeter. The bird swoops over to get a closer look at its next meal. A mouse scurries inside a metal structure when, ‘snap!’ a cage trap shuts the hawk in.
What probably seems like a bad day for the hawk, may actually be a blessing in disguise. By landing in the trap, the hawk possibly avoided a much more dangerous trap – a jet engine.
The trap was set by a team of United States Department of Agriculture wildlife biologists, who work at Fairchild under the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program. Their goal is to trap and relocate birds and other wildlife, mitigating risk and ensuring the safety of the base’s aircrews and assets.
Aircraft hitting birds is a major concern for any aviation company, including the Air Force. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were more than 14,000 reported bird strikes in 2018. While these strikes are rarely fatal for the aircrew or passengers, they can be. They also cause enormous amounts of damage, costing the Air Force millions of dollars in repairs.
Before the team was on site, a great-horned owl hit an aircraft engine, causing nearly $95,000 in damage.
The BASH program traps birds and other wildlife, tags and then relocates them. The team has already captured, tagged and rehabilitated over 50 birds since they arrived here Oct. 1, 2019.
“When we move birds, we move them [approximately] 50 miles away to a suitable habitat, away from the airfield,” said Carl Frey, USDA wildlife biologist. “We will choose a direction that is in line with migration patterns. Right now, winter birds will be flying south, so we will drive them south.”
Relocating the birds ensures the safety of the birds and aircraft.
“Our operations are a collaborative effort between airfield management, security forces, entomology and wing safety,” said Frey. “We are on base mainly for the airfield, but we will address other issues if it affects the flightline or aircraft.”
The team of USDA biologists partners with these base organizations to receive notification about birds or other animals spotted, such as coyotes, raccoons and deer.
“The most common wildlife that we deal with out here is red-tail hawk, rough-legged hawk and great-horned owls,” Frey said. “We also deal a lot with the non-native invasive species like pigeons and starlings, which are prey for the big birds.”
Although Fairchild’s BASH team primarily relocates birds, they also partner with state agencies, universities and federal agencies by contributing to their studies.
Researchers from the University of Idaho recently reached out asking if anyone had a rough-legged hawk to track migration patterns, and the BASH program was there to help, added Frey.
“We are putting GPS transmitters on rough-legged hawks and tracking their migration patterns,” said Neil Paprocki, University of Idaho doctoral student. “My dissertation at the University of Idaho is specifically looking at differences in male and female migration, also adult and young bird migration, and trying to figure out their differences.”
The bird’s tracking device is monitored by researchers, who can also warn BASH if the bird tries to return to the airfield.
“It’s easier for me [not having to catch birds] to just come by and put the transmitter on and get the data that I need,” said Paprocki. “Knowing the bird’s location is important to [BASH] for aircraft safety reasons, and we’ll be able to know pretty quickly if the bird is coming back and notify them.”
The BASH program is a vital asset to everyday operations, Fairchild’s partnerships, and ensuring safety of aircrew, aircraft and wildlife.