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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 20 November, 2019
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Pigeon v Plane: The costly battle to keep the airspace bird-free

A recent incident involving pigeons which forced an Aer Lingus plane to abandon its flight to London has highlighted the measures Dublin Airport takes to keep the skies around the runway bird-free.

Image: Pigeons via Shutterstock

THE ABANDONMENT OF an Aer Lingus flight which hit a flock of pigeons as it took off from Dublin Airport recently has highlighted just what it takes to ensure Irish airspace is bird-free when planes take off.

Bird scaring operations are a lot larger at airports than you might think and bird strikes are not always preventable.

Last year, for example, Dublin Airport had between 55 and 60 incidents where birds hit planes in the vicinity of the airport. Most collisions are minor and insignificant but some can cause problems for aircraft.

The airport authorities carried out around 48,000 ‘bird scaring actions’ last year which involved firing handmade cartridges, which emit a loud bang and then smoke to disperse the birds, from a special gun. There is anything between 70 and 100 of these cartridges, which cost around €2.20 each, fired daily.

This means over €100,000 would have been spent on this bird scaring operation alone last year with other tools used including lasers, loudspeakers with bird distress calls, the airport’s own bird of prey (a hawk) and, later this year, dogs to hassle birds lingering on the runway tarmac.

“You have to have a few tools in your toolbox,” according to Gerry Keogh, Dublin Airport’s Chief Fire Officer, who said the strategy at the airport is “constant harassment” with his staff rarely shooting down birds, instead concentrating on scattering them.

Pigeon racing is part of the reason birds are found in the airspace over Dublin Airport but relations between pigeon fanciers and aviation authorities are amicable.

Issues which arose out of a number of large pigeon races a number of years ago led to pigeon racing groups agreeing to relocate their release or ‘liberation’ points for formal races so their flight paths do not pass close to major airports. “This has been deemed to have been successful to date,” the Irish Aviation Authority said.

Liberation

The recent incident at Dublin Airport is still being investigated but its likely that birds were part of a 9,000 strong flock that was liberated in Thurles that day with some of the pigeons swayed in the direction of the east coast – and Dublin Airport – as a result of the large westerly wind.

There are around 4,500 pigeon fanciers across the island of Ireland. Fred Russell from the Northern Ireland Provincial Amalgamation of Racing Pigeons (NIPA) said his members notify airport authorities every time there is a race.

“We give them our liberation time, the number of pigeons and the expected time,” he said.

As well as the ‘tools in their toolbox’, Dublin Airport maintains the grass at a certain level to deter pigeons from landing and has patrols on the airfield from dawn to dusk and into the night in order to keep the birds away.

When TheJournal.ie spent the day with Dublin Airport Fire Service in March we told you how – in line with strict regulations – authorities shoot down birds on some occasions, collect the remains, tag them, take DNA samples and keep them in a large freezer for reference.

YouTube: Thejournalvideo

Keogh said: “This bird scaring racket is a whole science in itself.”

Baldonnel dispute

The IAA is also involved, chairing the National Bird Hazard Committee which meets twice annually with stakeholders to discuss issues and coordinate policy. It also consults with pigeon racing organisations every year and good relations are underlined by one recent incident.

Pigeons had been flying in the area around the Irish Air Corps base in Baldonnel after some members of the Irish Homing Union liberated their birds along the N7 in the Citywest area.

But following consultation it was agreed the fanciers would move their training to another location with anyone who doesn’t subject to a ban by the union.

Dublin Airport Authority said it made no apology for its bird scaring operations, a spokesperson saying: “We do everything we can to prevent birds from landing here at the airport. So, we don’t make any apology for this.”

Keogh, who pointed out that similar operations are in force at airports worldwide, added: “Our priority is aviation safety.”

Read: Pigeons force Aer Lingus flight to abandon trip to London

VIDEOS: A day in the life of the Dublin Airport Fire Service

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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