Unfriendly skies: Forest Lakes, the Miracle on the Hudson, and Canada Geese
The way that a pilot named Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger saved all 155 onboard his disabled commercial jetliner was the feel-good story of 2009. Locally, however, the "Miracle on the Hudson" helped launch some bad feelings in the Forest Lakes neighborhood.
Since the incident and following a series of Congressional hearings and the release of previously confidential FAA data on bird strikes, thousands of the geese across the country have been rounded up and slaughtered as part of the airline industry's efforts to make flying safer.
But the mass killing has outraged bird lovers and ruffled feathers at Forest Lakes where 90 Canada Geese were rounded up and killed in early July. Some Forest Lakes residents have come forward to say that despite their neighborhood's proximity to the airport, Forest Lakes geese actually pose little risk to planes.
"It's hypocrisy, and it's all about money," says resident Arthur Epp, who lives in a house overlooking a lake where the geese once swam and raised their young.
While federal officials say the geese killing will bolster the safety of the flying public, Epp says there's plenty of data to back up the claim that the airline industry is most concerned with making people think they're safer.
Who is right?
Just two miles from the Charlottesville Albemarle Regional Airport, Forest Lakes is a planned community of 1,400 homes, most on family-friendly cul-de-sacs and with many houses overlooking tranquil bodies of water. Paths for walking and biking wind through the neighborhood to provide nature lovers ample opportunity to commune with wildlife. Until July, the Forest Lakes community included families of Canada Geese who'd parade their young each spring and summer.
Carol Rasmussen says the lake–- and the geese that lived on it–- were a main attraction when she and her husband purchased their home in 2007.
"We only looked at one house– this one," she says, standing in her kitchen where a picture window offers an ample water view. "We made an offer on the spot."
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and undergoing brutal radiation and chemotherapy that kept her housebound and often alone, Rasmussen, 59, says the geese soon took on a more important role.
"Watching geese have families was a spiritual thing for me," she says. "They were my lifeline."
So when she awoke one morning this past summer and noticed the lake was empty of her feathered friends, her concern quickly turned to outrage when a neighbor informed her that agents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture had swept in, rounded the geese into mesh enclosures, and transported them to a slaughterhouse (and turned them into zoo food, according to a USDA official).
The explanation for the extermination came in a May 26 letter to the Forest Lakes Community Association. The Charlottesville Albemarle Regional Airport asks for help with a "critically important safety project," and cautions the neighborhood that failure to comply with the request could lead to "serious injury and death to the flying public."
Given the dire language that might summon images of plane wreckage and bodies strewn over Route 29 and given how close Sully's passengers came to becoming fatalities, it's perhaps not surprising that the Community Association readily agreed.
"We gave it considerable consideration," says Association president David Shifflett in an email to the Hook, "and in the interest of human safety and accident prevention, we approved the request to conduct a humane roundup during the summer molt," a time during June and July in which the geese lose their flight feathers.
Rasmussen and others didn't learn of the letter until much later. They're incensed that the decision to allow the round-up was made without notifying residents, despite the fact that the effort may have required agents to cross private property.
"It was done like a thief in the night," she says. She even began running ads in the Hook and the Daily Progress decrying the killings. And like neighbor Epp, she denies that her neighborhood's geese would pose a safety risk. They aren't the only ones making that claim.
David Feld, spokesperson for a group called Geese Peace, also dispute's the government's slaughter approach.
"It looks like they're solving the problem, but they're not solving it," says Feld. "If they rounded up all the Canada Geese in the whole world, it might reduce the number of strikes by a small fraction compared to everything else."
Feld points to statistics that show that of the 1,299 recorded bird strikes between 1990 and 2008 in Virginia, just three percent involved Canada Geese while nearly a quarter were caused by gulls. Of the incidents involving Canada Geese, several caused "minor damage" to the plane. Other more frequent offenders: starlings and pigeons. Nationally, just one percent of bird strikes are attributed to Canada Geese, although that number could be as high as three percent if one counts in the possibility that they are among the additional two percent of strikes attributed to "unknown" large birds.
At the Charlottesville airport, FAA data shows that of the 24 reported bird strikes since 1990, only one–- in November 1995–- seemed to involve a Canada Goose. In that daytime incident, which occurred under clear skies, a Cessna 152 encountered the large bird during take-off at 200 feet and at an estimated speed of 65 mph. There was no reported damage. And in fact, according to the remarks from the incident, the bird struck was only assumed to be a Canada Goose from the date and location of the strike.
In fact, the FAA agrees that Canada Geese pose no greater risk than any other birds, according to spokesperson Jim Peters.
"We just want to make sure that when aircraft come into any densely populated urban area, they can do it safely," he says.
And at the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport, gulls are certainly a greater culprit, responsible for six of the 24 local bird strikes, including one incident in May 1995 in which a gull struck the left propeller of a Delta Connection BA-31 Jetstream, causing the passenger line to lose some power during take-off. The pilot managed to abort take-off, and there were no injuries.
But Canada Geese can't seem to lose their reputation as airline enemies, and it is true that the Miracle on the Hudson isn't the only time Canada Geese have brought down a plane.
In September 1995, a military plane carrying 24 occupants and taking off near Anchorage, Alaska struck three dozen Canada Geese, according to the website birdstrike.com. At least four birds entered the engines, causing the plane to crash just one mile past the runway, killing everyone on board.
More recently, in October 2007, a flight instructor and his student perished after crashing during a night flight between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Grand Forks, North Dakota. Investigators identified Canada Goose remains in the wreckage.
Anyone following the news back in early 2009 knows "Sully," the dignified, white-haired pilot who managed to ditch the U.S. Airways Airbus he was flying into the Hudson River after a gaggle of Canada Geese collided with both engines causing catastrophic double engine failure.
Terror soon turned to joy as all 155 passengers and crew aboard that morning's Flight 1549 survived. But good news for those passengers and crew was decidedly bad news for Canada Geese, the species eventually ruled responsible for the crash.
No one argues that birds aren't a menace to planes–- or to an airline's budget.
According to the FAA's birdstrike data, there were approximately 112,000 bird strikes reported between 1990 and April 2010, and yet a study posted on the USDA website asserts that the number may represent just one fifth of the actual incidents. The estimated cost in lost airtime and repairs between 1990 and 2008, according to the study, has been placed at anywhere between $95 and $400 million.
Feld dismisses the idea that 80 percent of birdstrikes go unreported–- or that costs could soar that high.
"It's a big lie," he says. "If a plane hit a goose, it was reported. The only ones not reported didn't cause any damage, and the pilot may not have even known. It's common sense."
Still, while gulls and pigeons are statistically more likely to collide with planes, Canada Geese, some aviation experts claim, are among the greatest feathered menaces not only because of their size– they can weigh up to 20 pounds– but because they can fly at high altitudes and in large flocks as they migrate to and from Canada.
But Geese Peace's Feld says it's the Geese's biology that both give them an unfair bad rap and also make them among the easiest wildlife to mitigate–- because they are flightless during the early summer months.
And one big misunderstanding, he says, is the belief that they are all migratory.
In the mid-20th century, ornithologists believed that the Canada Goose, common in America until the early 20th century, had disappeared from this country due to overhunting. But in 1962, to the great excitement of conservationists, a wildlife biologist discovered a flock living on a Minnesota lake kept warm through the winter because of its proximity to a heat-generating power plant. The geese were taken into captivity and bred, then were reintroduced to the American wild where their proliferation makes them one of the great conservation success stories.
As their numbers have soared, so have complaints.
"It's a nightmare for maintenance," says Pete Mazza, golf pro at the Spring Creek golf course in Zion Crossroads, where the geese live year round. "It's not just that they're a nuisance," says Mazza, "it's that their waste can be toxic to the greens."
The director of the Meadowcreek Golf Course at Pen Park shares his frustration with the approximately 100 Canada Geese that live on the course.
"With all the food and water they can consume and no predators, they live in paradise," says Rion Summers, citing the park's proximity to the Rivanna River. The geese, he says, leave an "enormous" quantity of waste, damaging the greens and mucking up shoes.
"Playing golf is difficult enough," says Summers, "without this unpleasantness and potential health risk." Meadowcreek, he says, is currently seeking a license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to eradicate the geese, which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, making it illegal to hunt or harass them without a federal permit.
But if some people wish the birds would fly back up north and stay there, that's not going to happen for a simple reason. The geese "imprint" on the location of their birth, a biological process that has led to two different classifications of the geese here in the United States: resident Canada Geese, which nest and remain here in the states, and migratory Canada Geese, which fly more than 1,000 miles to winter in the warmer U.S. before returning to nest in Canada each spring.
"It's not that these Canada Geese decided they weren't going to migrate," says Feld. "They're biologically stuck because we interfered with their migratory patterns. Once they nested here, the goslings biologically had to nest here."
When the Smithsonian Institute undertook scientific analysis of the goose remains in the engines of Flight 1549, the results showed that the offending birds were migratory geese and not members of the resident Canada Goose population living in and around LaGuardia Airport.
That, however, didn't stop New York authorities from formulating a plan to slaughter nearly 200,000 geese– many of them resident geese– in the name of airline safety. In one incident similar to the Forest Lakes goose slaughter and timed to coincide with their summer molt, 400 resident Canada Geese were rounded up in Brooklyn's Prospect Park in July. The action by USDA agents involved no community notification and elicited anger from nearby residents and local politicians who vented in various news articles including one posted on thedailybeast.com that asked, "What hath Sully wrought?"
If the famed pilot, who also runs an aviation safety consulting firm, has an opinion on what he hath wrought, he's not saying.
"Captain Sullenberger is not commenting on this issue at this time," says his PR rep.
Is there an answer?
So what are the real risks of Canada Geese to planes?
Local pilot Skip Degan, who often takes aerial photos for this paper, has had two run-ins with birds–- neither involved a Canada Goose. One was a starling he struck while piloting a small plane. "It hit the windshield and left a spot," he recalls. That incident, he says, occurred at a low speed and didn't pose much of a hazard.
The other incident occurred when he piloted a twin-engine plane into a massive turkey vulture. "It cracked the windshield," says Degan, who aborted the flight and landed without further incident.
Degan says he believes the greatest hazard from birds is at altitudes under 2,000 feet– mostly during take-offs and landings– and comes mostly from gulls and blackbirds. He also notes that while birds are a menace, "they're very visible." And he says that in most instances, pilots can avoid collisions if they keep their eyes open and one thing in mind.
"It's the sky," he says. "That's where birds live."
Their lives can cause human casualties. A joint report by the Department of Transportation and the Department of Agriculture puts the total human death toll as a result of wildlife strikes at over 200 worldwide since 1988. And the biggest killer appears to be one of the smallest birds: common starlings.
In 1996, starlings reportedly brought down a plane in the Netherlands, killing 34. Worst of all was an Eastern Air Lines flight that took off from Boston into a flock of starlings in 1960. Sixty-two people died in the ensuing crash.
So what about altering planes so that they're less vulnerable to a strike? In fact, planes have long been engineered to withstand bird strikes. Beginning in the 1950s, scientists have used the "chicken gun" to fire frozen poultry at planes in order to simulate a bird strike and find ways to strengthen the aircraft. Windshields remain one source of vulnerability, as are engines.
And while numerous articles have questioned why there can't be some sort of mesh placed over engines to prevent a bird from entering, Geese Peace's Feld– who is also an engineer– says the wind drag and consequent reduction in both power and fuel efficiency makes that method impractical.
"If it could have been done," says Feld, "it would have been done."
Even if some bird lovers argue that geese have been unfairly targeted, they don't believe Canada Geese or any other birds should be allowed to bring down planes carrying humans.
"We certainly sympathize with the need to protect human safety concerning airports and bird strikes," says Lynsey White Dasher, an urban wildlife specialist with the United States Humane Society. "But all research points to these slaughtering programs not working."
That, says Dasher, is because unless the habitat is significantly changed, new birds will quickly come in to take the place of the slaughtered geese.
"It creates an ongoing cycle of needless killing," says Dasher, who believes that the USDA– paid by airports to cope with wildlife management– kills Canada Geese because they are, during molting season at least, "sitting ducks."
A quick round-up, she says, is simpler than focusing on longer term if more sustainable solutions or on other bird species. And Dasher complains that the agency tasked with advising airports on wildlife issues has become a sort of federal pest control firm.
"USDA's Wildlife Services has come up with some great nonlethal solutions, but unfortunately they almost always resort to the killing method," she says. "There is a conflict of interest."
Not true, says Carol Bannerman, spokesperson for the Wildlife Services, the branch of the USDA responsible for managing airport-area fauna.
"We're looking at addressing a human safety risk," says Bannerman, noting that airports are required by the FAA to mitigate wildlife risks in a five-mile radius. "That's what we're focusing on– it doesn't have to do with whether or not it's easier."
Frequent flier Christine Cornwell, who often takes business flights into and out of the Charlottesville airport, says she's grateful for efforts taken to make flying safer, but she does question the need for the killing.
"I don't want to upheave nature too much," she says, noting that none of the numerous flights she's taken–- going north or south–- has flown over Forest Lakes. "The chance of geese flying to the airport and flocking are slim to none," she notes. "I think there are bigger threats to that environment."
But if killing them causes so much upset, what is the answer to controlling their numbers?
Goose be gone
The one thing the USDA and the animal activists agree on: limiting reproduction of Canada Geese is a valuable tool, and the best way to do that, they agree, is by "egg addling," in which oil is applied to eggs soon after they're laid, preventing a gosling from developing.
Dasher says making the environment less hospitable through the use of trained dogs also effectively controls geese.
"They can be brought in prior to nesting season to create a hostile environment for the birds," says Dasher, noting research that shows that, contrary to claims that the birds will simply move to the nearest body of water and still be in the vicinity of the airport, many geese will relocate further away, and some may actually return to Canada.
Naturalist Marlene Condon condemns slaughter as an unsustainable way to control goose populations and says natural predators such as fox and coyote would do a better job.
"People need to accept their presence and learn how to live safely with them," she says of predators. She wishes more parents would teach their kids to raise their hands and scream to scare away predators.
"Children are far more likely to get killed by people in car accidents, by drowning, or accidental gun shootings or even by pets," she says, "than to ever get hurt by a coyote or fox."
Condon agrees with Dasher that egg addling is an answer, particularly since Canada Geese, like most birds, nest and hatch their young only during the spring and summer months, so efforts to control them don't need to be year round.
"It would be much more humane to destroy eggs," she says, "than to roughly handle sentient birds that would be terrified as a result and then to kill them in God-only-knows what manner."
The USDA's Bannerman, however, says that in addition to recommending habitat changes to airports in order to deter birds and other wildlife from tangling with planes, her agency does perform egg addling of Canada Goose eggs on a regular basis, and has even resorted to using "goose contraception"– a process by which agents capture female geese daily prior to nesting season and inject them with birth control hormones. That, she says, is an extremely expensive and time-consuming method. In the Forest Lakes case, she says, it was too late for prevention–- "immediate action" was called for.
The slaughter won't keep new geese from arriving, however, and cancer survivor Rasmussen wonders if there's a plan in place to prevent future goose slaughters at Forest Lakes.
According to homeowner rep Shifflett, who agreed to answer the Hook's questions by email only, Forest Lakes has always performed annual egg addling and has used strobe lights in an effort to deter geese. He did not respond by presstime to further inquiries about the timing, cost, or scope of those efforts, or what approach the neighborhood will take in the future.
Charlottesville Albemarle Regional Airport spokesperson Barbara Hutchinson did not return the Hook's repeated calls for comment.
Sign of hope or further loss?
A month after the Forest Lakes geese were killed, Carol Rasmussen looked out her window and saw a sight she'd longed for since they disappeared: a single Canada Goose gosling swimming in the middle of the lake. But its presence, she says, prompted none of the happiness it might once have inspired in the self-described nature lover.
"I knew it wouldn't survive all alone," says Rasmussen, who confirms that it promptly disappeared, perhaps the victim of a predator, before she could capture it and deliver it to a wildlife rescue association.
She also fears for the flocks of Canada Geese she has seen flying overhead, perhaps scoping out a new place to nest and raise their young in the lake behind her house. It's a likely scenario, if one looks at Brooklyn's Prospect Park, where five weeks after the 400 geese were slaughtered, new geese have already moved in.
Rasmussen says she has spoken with other Forest Lakes residents about undertaking a volunteer egg addling effort, although it may be months or years before it will be needed.
"The lake is dead," she says sadly from the same kitchen seat from which she used to watch the geese swim past. "I paid a premium to live on the lake because of the flora and the fauna," she says, admitting she's now pondering selling her house.
"I don't want to live in community," she says, "where there's no compassion."