Images of distressed birds writhing, seizing and flopping their wings, broadcast last week on Houston television, were tough for the public to see. Photographers for KHOU-TV recorded this horror show at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) after a contractor hired by airport authorities, in cooperation with United Airlines, intentionally poisoned grackles, pigeons and other birds, with corn kernels mixed with the deadly toxicant Avitrol. Startled airport employees saw birds dropping out of the sky shortly after dawn on Saturday and the deaths continued through the weekend. Some birds being filmed took almost an hour to die.
Aviation safety must be a priority, given that so many human lives depend on incident-free flights, and there are times when aggressive management of birds at airports is warranted. But the plan executed in Houston seems particularly cruel and unnecessary. No management authority should be able to vaguely invoke public health and safety as a rationale for this kind of cruel killing, especially when it has allowed airport bird populations to reach into the hundreds and made a minimal effort to employ preventative and non-lethal strategies first.
Today, I wrote to city, airport and United Airlines officials, pointing out that "exclusion, with netting or by other means, keeps birds from places where they might nest, roost, or simply find shelter. Managing the habitat, such as altering the height of grass on runways, can help keep birds off airfields, and other management actions can be undertaken to deny birds access to key on-site sources of food and water, as a means of compelling them to go elsewhere." I also noted that "frightening devices and visual repellents are commonly deployed at airports to reduce risks of bird strikes. Underlying all of these approaches is a humane population management strategy that can stabilize populations through the use of birth control via a commercially available reproductive inhibitor, OvoControl." Why were these types of practices not employed prior to the decision to conduct indiscriminate poisoning?
Airport authorities in Dallas-Fort Worth told the Houston Chronicle that they do not use lethal tactics, and many other airports around the nation have discarded Avitrol as a realistic means of preventing airplanes from striking birds. Avitrol is a particularly inhumane and indiscriminate poison that is marketed as a "frightening agent" because it causes birds to convulse and suffer over long periods of time. The erratic movements of the dying birds ostensibly scare other birds. The Environmental Protection Agency rightly placed new restrictions last year on Avitrol's use
Bird killing, especially by cruel methods, is an issue we've been confronting for years, especially as conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at airports and aquaculture facilities, in municipalities, crop fields, feedlots and other settings where conflicts between birds and people arise. Wildlife Services, as the USDA's program is known, kills 3 to 5 million birds a year. The government's approach, like the Houston airport's, needs to be re-examined in light of the public's concern about humane treatment of all animals.
We are fortunate to have a world populated with birds. To be able to watch their incredible feats of flight and hear their marvelous song is a source of human wonder and enjoyment. We see them around our homes and workplaces in ways we cannot often see and enjoy other wildlife. They enrich our lives. Of course, conflicts are inevitable but the challenge for us is to actively manage these in a way that does not leave a trail of death and misery in its wake.
Houston airport officials and United Airlines showed us the wrong way to handle the conflict. Let's take a lesson from this and move toward more humane control methods, so this grisly scenario is never repeated again. The events in Houston should be a primer for every airport in the nation on how not to handle a situation with birds and aircraft.
This article first appeared on Wayne Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.