TAMPA — The hired assassin stalked her victims from a slow-moving pickup truck on a recent Wednesday morning. Her dark eyes were intensely vigilant, but, seeing her shot, Cheddar grew impatient and ruffled. She craved the kill.
The truck crept closer, the window rolled down, and the slender white cattle egrets finally sensed they were being watched. A few took flight, but there was a straggler. “There’s always one idiot,” said Jackie Hurd, director of operations for Predator Bird Services.
Hurd loosened her grip on the jesses, the braided leather cords tied to Cheddar’s legs, and launched the hawk from the window. Without the natural gravity of a high vantage point, Cheddar used the momentum from the moving pickup.
“I toss her,” Hurd said. “Sort of like a football.”
Cheddar swooped in and snatched the slowest egret in her talons, pinning it to the grass. Then she ate. It sounded like someone ripping an old dish rag. A commercial jet descended out of the fog above.
Hurd, a falconer, and Cheddar, a juvenile Harris’s hawk, are contractors hired by Tampa International Airport to visit a few times a month and deal with unwanted guests.
It’s a 3,000-year-old, human-devised method for fighting a 100-year-old, human-made problem.
Protecting the runways
Airfield operations compliance manager Brett Bell is the guy driving the truck.
Planes take off and land at Tampa International Airport each day carrying thousands of passengers blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the giant, grassy fields below. Bell and his small team are the specks down there, looking out for the even-smaller specks — herons, egrets, turkey vultures, pigeons, gulls and so on — threatening to damage or bring down airplanes.
The average passenger was probably unaware that birds posed any danger at all until 2009. Then a flock of Canada geese took out both engines on an Airbus A320 out of LaGuardia, leading to the spectacular, casualty-free water landing dubbed the “miracle on the Hudson,” and a decent film starring Tom Hanks.
The birds that hang out at Tampa International can collide with wings and windshields in what are known as “bird strikes.” Worse, they can get sucked into jet engines for what’s called an “ingestion.” Strikes are not uncommon, and the vast majority are harmless — to the planes, at least. The birds almost always die.
Ingestions are less frequent, but they happen, and they trigger a whole ordeal of federal regulatory proceedings and record-keeping, including Bell or someone on his team scraping a little bit of bird off the engine and mailing it to the Smithsonian to identify the species.
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Federal Aviation Authority records show there have been 150 recorded bird strikes or ingestions at Tampa International in the past year. You have to go all the way back to 2014 to find one that caused any damage, and even then it was noted as “minor.” Still, the airport has to stay on top of it.
Bell, a genial-but-focused 33-year-old former Air Force jet mechanic, has many overlapping responsibilities. The 3,000-acre airfield contains all the runways, service roads, tenant buildings, guidance lights and signs that must be maintained to highly regulated standards. (Think testing a painted line for the proper reflectivity.) And he’s involved when drunk drivers crash cars through the barbed-wire fence or, he said, when a guy who’s late for his Spirit Airlines flight hops a fence and comes casually striding across an active runway, suitcase in hand, before the police surround him.
But the most Sisyphean of tasks for Bell’s team is helping out with bird mitigation. Birds enjoy the airport, and despite the team’s daily work to harass them (“harass” being the official airport term used in documents) with trucks and sirens and fireworks-like noisemakers, plus other methods that we’ll soon address, birds never stay gone. They can get used to nearly anything.
Only when you’re on the ground out there, far beyond the terminals and shops selling ergonomic neck pillows, is it clear just how much nature-y green space surrounds the airport. Wildlife includes coyotes, hundreds of federally protected gopher tortoises and walking catfish that, after a heavy rain, come crawling out of Fish Creek, a stream bordering the airfield.
The main safety concern, though, is always birds. Live traps, baited with pigeons, are set up all over. When they catch certain birds, such as red-tailed or red-shouldered hawks, the airport’s biologist places a federal band on their leg for tracking, then relocates them somewhere nice, and safer for all parties.
Bell clearly appreciates the beauty of those raptors, and birds in general. He fostered a cockatiel that landed at the airport and adopted it as a pet. Escorting Cheddar has made him want to learn falconry himself. But he’s also matter-of-fact about what must be done to protect passengers.
“They get one strike,” he said of birds that are relocated from the airport, but banded so they can be recognized. “If they come back, it’s clear they consider the airport their home.” Which means they have to be killed.
Other birds get no strikes. Wildlife rules allow the airport to “take” exotic or feral birds like pigeons indiscriminately. What does that mean when Cheddar isn’t around? The answer came quickly.
A Muscovy duck, a big sucker with a warty red face, was spotted lounging on the airfield during Cheddar’s recent patrol. Hurd tried to grab it with a towel but wasn’t fast enough, so she let Cheddar fly over and pin it down. Cheddar was quickly returned to her kennel in the truck. A duck this big could injure her. It could also be bad news for a jet engine.
Would the duck be relocated? “Uh, this bird’s invasive, so she’s got to ... go,” Hurd said.
There was a brief discussion of options. Hurd carries scissors to quickly separate the egrets caught by Cheddar from their heads, but those would not work on a bird this size. If they put it in a bag, they could euthanize the duck with the exhaust from a truck, but the bag they had wasn’t strong enough. A shovel maybe? Suddenly, Bell appeared from behind another airport pickup truck with a shotgun.
BLAM! A puff of feathers.
That’s how a situation like this gets handled when Cheddar isn’t available.
The hunting was unexpectedly good for the slow season.
“I might not have to feed you tonight,” Hurd told Cheddar. It wasn’t just an off-hand comment. Falconry, like aviation, is a highly regulated industry. Falconers must weigh their birds multiple times a day to the half-ounce to maintain a precise weight.
It takes years of apprenticeship to become a general falconer, which Hurd, 34, is now. It takes several more to become a certified master falconer, which Hurd will be soon. She spoke to Cheddar in a loving-teasing sort of way.
“Cheddar, what are you doing? You look like a pancake,” she said when the hawk spread its wings and hunched over flat. When Cheddar missed an egret, Hurd blew a whistle and Cheddar flew back, loudly grazing the side of the truck as she came through the window. Then she pooped on Hurd’s leg.
“Beauty and grace,” Hurd deadpanned.
After Cheddar made a successful run at another egret, Hurd wiped the blood from Cheddar’s talons and realized something. “One more,” she said, “and we’ll tie the record.”
That would be six in a day. Not enough to make a dent in the bird population, but the idea, said an airport spokesperson, is for birds to associate the truck with a scary hawk.
With minutes left in Cheddar’s shift, time was running out. The truck approached a smattering of cattle egrets, not far from a runway where a Spirit Airlines flight sat with engines running. Cheddar flew toward them, then kept on flying.
“No. No. No,” said Bell. “This is our nightmare.”
Cheddar landed on the wing of the jet.
Hurd banged on the roof of the truck, shouted and blew the whistle as hard as she could over and over. Cheddar looked around, likely gave some person with a window seat a surprise, then finally flew back to the truck.
The airport is a monument to human triumph over physics, and Cheddar was that day an example of our control over nature — almost.
The truck drove off. The hunt was over. Those particular egrets lived.