Friday, August 31, 2012

Opinion » Editorial: Eagle cam stars need a new home - Norfolk, Virginia


Opinion » Editorial: Eagle cam stars need a new home

None of the outcomes Norfolk faces to reduce the likelihood of another collision between plane and eagle holds much appeal.

Moving the eagles from their nests at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, adjacent to the airport, slams a hammer on the heartstrings of thousands who have watched eaglets hatch and followed episodes of the male eagle's efforts to court a new mate via the eagle cam.

Leaving the eagles at the garden could bring a fresh round of mourning if another of the endangered birds - a female eagle died after hitting a plane last year - meets its demise near a runway. And the potential for a more catastrophic result - a fatal plane crash, rather than $150,000 in damage - looms with every takeoff and landing.

That's by far the worst possible scenario. That risk means Norfolk must bear the sadness and make the effort to move the birds.

The danger is not far-fetched. Last week, an audit from the U.S. Inspector General criticized the Federal Aviation Administration's paltry efforts to monitor bird strikes at airports. Such incidents have soared in the past two decades, from 1,770 reported in 1990 to 9,840 reported last year.

But reporting is voluntary, which means the FAA has no idea of the real magnitude of the problem. An assistant inspector general said the office examined 40 of 209 airports and found that 21 of those did not know whether the FAA had reviewed their bird strike assessments and plans, or even whether they were required to conduct assessments or develop plans.

That's lackadaisical oversight of an issue that challenges safety at every airport in the country.

Twenty-four people have died as a result of birds colliding with planes since 1988, according to the report, and 235 have been injured. The toll on planes has been catastrophic: According to the FAA, 54 planes have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair. The FAA puts the annual cost of losses due to wildlife strikes at $600 million in the United States.

And the FAA ranks eagles as the sixth most damaging species in strikes to aircraft in an assessment that tallies the damage caused and its effect on flight.

Geese also pose problems - they rank third on the list, after deer and vultures, and caused one of the most famous examples of the terrible potential for calamity when birds and planes meet. U.S. Airways Flight 1549 lost both engines when it struck geese shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport in January 2009; the pilot famously landed the plane safely in the Hudson River.

Techniques to scare birds away - loud propane cannon blasts, recordings of predators' calls - must be used in conjunction with other methods, including making the area around airports less inviting to birds. And they must include another threat - in some cases, actual killing of birds like geese or ducks to avoid habituating wildlife to irritating sounds.

That's not an option with eagles, nor should it be. Eagles have been endangered for many years but have rebounded. Even in greater numbers, their symbolic importance to our nation means killing them is a crime.

Find the eagles a nice new neighborhood away from the airport's runways. Move the camera, too.



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