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At MacDill, Sonic's bark is better than a boom

TAMPA — The U.S. Air Force can throw a mighty arsenal at its enemies. Smart bombs. Bunker busters. Fighter jets. Flying gunships. Atomic bombs.

What weapon does the world's most powerful Air Force pull out of its multitrillion-dollar inventory to keep aircraft-damaging birds away from MacDill Air Force Base?

It's got a tail, hates thunder and loves a car ride — Sonic, a border collie with gumption.

"She's a great tool," said Sonic's handler, ecologist Lindsey Garven, who quickly corrected herself. "Not a tool. She's a co-worker."

The military honcho who decided before World War II that it was a good idea to put an airstrip on a coastal wetland probably wasn't thinking about birds. They dominated the skies over South Tampa long before the KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft that today fly out of MacDill.

More than many Air Force bases, MacDill is in a continuous state of war against dozens of species of birds, from menacing vultures (akin to a flying bowling ball) to quacking ducks and dozens of species in between.

Garven, 29, and Sonic, a dog rescued from a shelter who is between 6 and 9 years old, are the last defense, the team that patrols MacDill chasing birds away from runways.

Both are civilians employed by Birdstrike Control Program of Willis, Texas, a private company hired by the Air Force.

It's work that is critically important, according to MacDill pilots whose aircraft risk a crash if a bird is sucked into and disables a jet engine or pops a hole in the fuselage.

Keeping birds at bay "is incredibly important at MacDill because of the migratory bird population. We've got coastal birds. And you can't get MacDill away from coastline," said Lt. Col. Jake Hartigan, 39, a MacDill pilot.

Any bird, tiny or huge, is a potential problem, Hartigan said. Sometimes planes will suck small birds into their engines, he said, and the pilot doesn't even realize it.

Then there are days like May 24, 2012.

A Royal Canadian Air Force jet struck several vultures during a landing approach at MacDill. One of the birds hit the jet's nose, punching a hole in the fuselage. In the cockpit, warning lights began blinking. Electrical systems failed. The crew said damage was massive.

But the jet's engines didn't quit, and the plane landed safely.

Garven, Sonic's handler, said she sometimes uses loud pyrotechnics to scare birds off runways or adjacent grounds. She even flies a small, remote-controlled airplane into flocks of circling vultures to shoo them off.

But the dog is her best weapon combating a wide variety of species because birds view a canine as a predator and so are less likely to return, Garven said.

Sonic loves the job. It's not work to her. She tends not to play with the plastic toys Garven keeps for her back at their MacDill office. Who needs them with a base full of fowl?

"She loves chasing birds," Garven said. "She's very passionate about it. … This is her play."

So Garven and Sonic patrol the entire 5,767-acre base, sometimes on foot, sometimes in a sport utility vehicle and, once in a while, in a canoe to visit isolated spots.

Bird lovers need not worry. Sonic rarely catches anything.

On a recent day, Garven spotted cattle egrets not far from the runway. She stopped her vehicle, let Sonic out the back. The dog sprinted to the flock. Garven uses a high-pitched whistle to try to direct the dog. But the border collie seems to know, by instinct, when to generate a burst of speed to chase the birds away.

"Go get them!" Garven called. "Come on, Sonic! Good girl."

Annoyed birds scampered.

"We actually like it when we have more free-thinking dogs . . . that have a natural passion for birds," Garven said. "You can send them out and they judge for themselves where they need to go by looking at the birds."

Garven carries a radio and can stop a landing or takeoff with a call to the tower if she sees birds too close for comfort. Sonic also chases the occasional mammal. Raccoons and armadillos are sometimes spotted.

The team works from sunrise to sunset, five days a week. Garven takes Sonic to her Tampa apartment at the end of the day and weekends. On weekends, she takes Sonic to the dog park.

"She's a big cuddler," Garven said. "She's just a big lover in general. And she's a very good listener. She doesn't beg. She's a great co-worker." And friend.

At MacDill, Sonic's bark is better than a boom 04/19/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 20, 2014 1:27pm]
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