Peregrine Falcon Shot at SFO

Concerns raised about shooting birds out of the sky at local airports

The United Airlines maintenance hangar at San Francisco International Airport isn’t the most obvious place you would look to find a falcon’s nest, but for the past year, that’s exactly where a couple of peregrine falcons have decided to call their home.

Predatory birds like the peregrine falcon can be a great benefit to airport safety because they feed on other flocks of birds, which help reduce collisions with planes.

That’s why it came as a shock when a male peregrine falcon was found wounded on January 15, lying on a taxiway with an apparent pellet wound in its shoulder. 

He was taken to the Peninsula Humane Society and nursed back to health, however, still unable to be released into the wild.

The falcon’s injury is the latest example of why concerns are being raised about the safety and accountability of a program that lets airports shoot birds out of the sky. 

SFO could not provide any documentation tracking how often shots are fired and could not confirm whether the airport shot the falcon.

SFO Spokesman Doug Yakel believes that the falcon is actually a benefit to the airport and believes they would not want to kill one.

“We don’t really know how that falcon came to be injured,” Yakel said. He maintains that the airport has no record of anyone on staff shooting any type of bird that week, including the falcon.

NBC Bay Area wanted to know how it could be that a bird was shot out of the sky over an international airport and no one knows who did the shooting. Are enough precautions set in place to ensure that these live rounds don’t interfere with aircraft?

“It’s a great question and I think it comes back to the fact that this is a program that is managed and certified by the FAA, so the FAA’s number one concern of course is always safety,” Yakel assured. “I have every confidence that the provisions in place because they are approved by the FAA and don’t pose any type of safety risk.”
However, according to this 2012 audit, the FAA’s Office of Inspector General is less confident in the FAA’s oversight of the program. In the report, the Inspector General found:

FAA’s oversight and enforcement activities are not sufficient to ensure airports fully adhere to Program requirements or effectively implement their wildlife hazard management plans. FAA has not developed robust inspection practices, and its inspectors do not have the technical expertise to effectively oversee the Program.

For its part, the FAA said it has adopted the majority of the OIG’s recommendations and will continue to make improvements in the program. 

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reviewed data from the FAA dating back to 2009 and discovered that collisions between birds and planes were on the rise at SFO and Oakland International in in the last two years when compared to 2009 and 2010. San Jose International was the only Bay Area airport that saw a decline in bird strikes in the last two years. 

Under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s permit, each airport must track the number of times lethal force is used to take animals.

SFO is one in a growing number of airports across the country that has been issued a Migratory Bird Depredation permit by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. The permit allows the use of live ammunition on birds at airports including SFO, Oakland International, and most recently San Jose International.

That means trained airport staff can fire off rounds at birds that they believe poses a threat to safety.

Glenn Stewart is the Director of the Predatory Bird Research Group at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Stewart remembers when there were only two pairs of peregrine falcons in the entire state of California in 1970s and was troubled to learn about the shooting.

“They have come off the endangered species list, but I cannot imagine 30, 40 years later we are shooting these birds,” Stewart told NBC Bay Area. Stewart has taken over treatment for the injured falcon, with the hope that it will be able to recover and fly well enough to catch its own prey. He has even given the bird a name – SFO.

While the Migratory Bird Depredation Permit allows airports to shoot birds that pose a hazard to planes, the peregrine falcon is classified as a bird of conservation concern, which limits the use of lethal force unless the animal poses an immediate danger to air travel.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Eddie Owens said that conflicts between birds and planes are inevitable. Still, he believes that firearms should be used only if all other methods, including food and shelter removal, air guns, and noise makers, fail to scare the birds away.

“When dealing with any migratory bird, we want lethal removal to be the very last option. We want it to be a direct threat to human health and safety,” Owens said.

Yakel told NBC Bay Area that the airport utilizes several nonlethal wildlife removal techniques to clear the area of birds.

“We really start by eliminating the reasons why wildlife would want to be at the airport,” Yakel said.  Airfield safety officers do everything from eliminating nesting areas, ponds and food sources to deploying a fake coyote decoy to scare off flocks off birds.

At San Jose International, where they began shooting birds this year, 10 birds were shot in the first two months. Oakland International has had their permit since 2002 and estimates they shoot less than 100 birds a month, or about 1200 birds a year.

We requested this information from SFO, however that data was not made available.


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