Under federal law, all major airports can apply for a permit to shoot birds out of the sky when they pose threat to airplanes. It’s a little-known program designed to keep travelers safe.
If a bird gets into a plane's engine, it can cause the engine to die and the plane to crash. The best example of this is the Miracle on the Hudson. A flock of geese was sucked up into the engines of a US Airways jet forcing Captain Sully Sullenberger to ditch his plane on the Hudson River. Everyone survived, but the danger was clear.
The program that allows airport workers to shoot birds in hopes of stopping that kind of near catastrophe is coming under scrutiny after an NBC Bay Area investigation uncovered that on average, nearly five birds a day are shot at Bay Area airports.
San Jose State University aviation professor, Victoria Collom, can appreciate the need to keep birds away from aircrafts. As a pilot, Collom has experienced firsthand the dangers of bird strikes. Still, she questions whether there is a better way to reduce the hazards, than shooting on the runway.
“There are other ways to do it, you have to look,” Collom told NBC Bay Area. “What is it that we need to do if normal tactics are not working to scare these birds away?”
As part of their wildlife prevention program, airports are required to report the number and type of birds they shoot each year to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The Investigative Unit requested these figures for every airport in the state.
According to records, Oakland International Airport had the highest total in the Bay Area, killing 1,125 in 2012. That number was slightly down from 2011 when 1,250 birds were killed.
San Francisco International Airport killed 410 birds in 2012, also down from 2011 when they killed 554 birds.
Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport is the most recent airport to receive a permit and only began shooting birds this year. That airport reports shooting at least 12 birds in 2013
Neither Oakland nor SFO would agree to an on-camera to answer specific questions about these numbers and their wildlife prevention program as a whole.
Just up north, Sacramento International Airport has one of the highest counts of birds strikes in the nation. That’s why that airport has a team of four biologists on-call 24 hours a day working 7 days a week on preventative measures.
Wildlife biologist Julie Car told NBC Bay Area that the majority of these measures are aimed at scaring birds away. “We try to make this area as unpleasant as possible using horns, pyrotechnics, basically just to scare them away,” Car said. “Shooting birds is always a last resort.”
Despite the high number of strikes here, Car says the airport manages to relocate birds without killing them 99 percent of the time.
“The goal of this program is to maintain safe aircraft operations. We would like to reduce the number of strikes as much as possible. Ideally there wouldn’t be any,” Car said.
In 2012, Sacramento killed 1,487 birds. That number was up from the previous year when they killed 237.
“We don’t want to be out there shooting everything. New birds will move in, it’s not as if you’re going to be devoid of it. If you’re going to go out and indiscriminately remove everything, the threatened and endangered species, it’s just not something that’s going to work,” Car said.
After declining NBC Bay Area’s request for an interview, a spokesperson for the Oakland airport stated in an email:
OAK is unique from other Bay Area Airports as our approximately 2,600 acres of airfield includes large areas of wetlands and our proximity to the SF Bay which are very attractive to wildlife, especially birds. This requires that we have a very aggressive program.
San Francisco also told NBC Bay Areas that the airport tries other methods first before shooting birds. They stated that their staff is regularly briefed by a wildlife biologist on how to identify birds before they shoot. Certain birds, such as falcons and eagles, are considered a bird of conservation concern and illegal to kill.
Predatory birds like the Red-tailed hawk, while not endangered, often assist in the clearing of airport runways because they hunt other birds.
Still, according to records obtained by NBC Bay Area San Francisco killed 41 Red-tailed hawks in 2012. Oakland’s airport killed 16 Red-tailed hawks that same year.