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Why & how bird scaring takes place

Why and how bird scaring takes place at Heathrow Airport…

Why & how bird scaring takes place
By Heathrow
In ITV’s Heathrow: Britian’s Busiest Airport Episode 2 viewers got to see one of the least talked about jobs on any airfield – bird scaring! While the process of dispersing birds is not often thought about, it is a crucial part of our Airfield Operations’ team job to ensure aircraft safety.

Airfield Operations Officer Chris Simpson became the talk of twitter showcasing how the team disperse birds with the use of a device to imitate a wild goose call…but there’s more to it than that.

With birds posing a threat to aircraft, particularly if ingested into the engine, bird hazard management is one of the Airside Safety Department’s key responsibilities.

We’ve taken a closer look at the work that goes into keeping birds and aircraft away from one another, and how Chris and the team perform their duties.

A bird free environment…

With the creation of a bird free environment the first and foremost objective, a huge amount of work is done in the office rather than on the airfield. Behind the scenes are colleagues who liaise with local authorities on planning applications to minimise the risk of increased bird activity caused by new developments or changes of land use.

In addition, other teams are busy gathering intelligence on bird species, population and food sources with ‘bird-proofing’ of buildings and infrastructure an essential task.

Open water sources are a main attractant so these need to be netted.

All of this work means that when Chris and the team do encounter birds on the airfield, every measure has been taken to discourage their presence in the first place.

For example, did you know that grass is kept at 150mm – 200mm (6-8 inches) as this length deters most birds? With reduced visibility they feel vulnerable to predators and find it difficult to feed on insects because access to the soil is impeded by the long grass.

It should also be noted that Heathrow helps manage over 170 hectares of biodiversity areas around the airport, ensuring the habitats for over 2,000 species of flora and fauna are maintained (find out more, here).

The most common birds at Heathrow are:

  • Corvids (Rooks, Carrion Crow, Jackdaw)
  • Gulls
  • Starlings
  • Pigeons
  • Geese

Making things even more difficult for Chris and the team are the various species of each bird they have to recognise. For example, did you know there are five different types of gull? For the record these are: Black-Headed Gull, Common Gull, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Herring Gull, and Greater Black-Back Gull.

Being able to correctly identify birds is a crucial skill for Chris and his colleagues. The subtle differences between a rook and crow can be difficult to spot from afar unless you know what you’re looking for…

Both are black and of a similar size, but the Crow has a smaller, stouter bill than the Rook, which is shaped more like a dagger and pale in colour.

The Rook is distinguished further by its ‘baggy trousers’ in comparison to the ‘slim fit’ worn by the Crow, which is generally tidier looking with a smoother outline.

Corvids are generally considered relatively ‘clever’ birds, rarely involved in birdstrikes and unlike most species not bothered by the presence of a yellow vehicle unless they see the door opening.

Another fun fact is that local migratory birds such as Swifts, Swallows and Wheatears can fly as far South as South Africa for the winter – so it’s not the aircraft flying long haul from Heathrow!

Special equipment fitted to our airfield operations vehicles…

The vehicles used by airfield operations are fitted with an electronic system called ‘Digiscare’. Two external loud speakers are fitted facing forward on the roof.

It is pre-programmed with the distress calls for a variety of birds and must be used correctly with knowledge of how different species will react in different ways.

Gulls for example will initially be attracted to the distress call to investigate, whereas starlings will fly directly away. On the rare occasions that these bird calls do not work, our airfield officers will use a cartridge gun – this produces only a loud sound, without a projectile, to scare the animals away.

The two teams responsible for bird hazard management on the airfield use the radio call signs “Seagull” and “Phoenix”.

24 hours a day, 365 days a year, airfield operations are out on the airfield maintaining a bird free environment.