By CHRISTOPHER SPATA, Tampa Bay Times
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The hitman chased her victims from a slow-moving pickup truck on a recent Wednesday morning. Her dark eyes were intensely alert, but at the sight of her shot, Cheddar grew impatient and confused. She craved the murder.
The truck crept closer, the window rolled down, and the slender white cattle egrets finally realized they were being watched. A few fled, but there was one straggler. “There’s always one idiot,” said Jackie Hurd, Predator Bird Services director of operations.
Hurd loosened her grip on the slings, 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 of the moving pickup.
“I’m throwing her away,” Hurd said. “A kind of football.”
Cheddar ducked in and grabbed the slowest egret in her talons and pinned him to the grass. Then she ate. It sounded like someone tore an old dishcloth. A commercial jet descended from the fog above.
Hurd, a falconer, and Cheddar, a young Harris hawk, are contractors hired by Tampa International Airport to visit several times a month and deal with unwelcome guests.
It’s a 3,000-year-old man-made method of combating a 100-year-old man-made problem.
Brett Bell, airport operations compliance manager, is the man driving the truck.
Every day planes take off and land at Tampa International Airport carrying thousands of passengers unaware of what is happening in the gigantic lawns below. Bell and his little team are the dots down there, watching out for the even smaller dots—herons, egrets, turkey vultures, pigeons, gulls, and so on—that threaten to damage or bring down planes.
The average passenger was probably unaware that birds posed any danger until 2009. Then a flock of Canada geese knocked out both engines of an Airbus A320 from LaGuardia, leading to the spectacular, casualty-free water landing that made the “Miracle on the Hudson” and a decent movie 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 be sucked into jet engines for what’s called a “shot.” Strikes are not uncommon, and the vast majority are harmless – at least for the planes. The birds almost always die.
Ingestions are less common, but they do happen, and they cause quite an ordeal of federal regulatory procedures and registration, including Bell or someone on his team scraping a little bit of bird off the engine and sending it to the Smithsonian to identify the species.
Data from the Federal Aviation Authority shows that there were 150 bird strikes or recordings registered with Tampa International in the past year. You have to go all the way back to 2014 to find one that did damage, and even then it was noted as ‘minor’. Yet the airport must remain on top of it.
Bell, a genius but focused 33-year-old former Air Force jet mechanic, has many overlapping responsibilities. The 3,000-acre airport contains all runways, service roads, tenant buildings, guide lights and signs that must be maintained to highly regulated standards. (Think testing a painted line for proper reflection.) And he’s involved when drunk drivers drive cars through the barbed wire or, he said, when a man late for his Spirit Airlines flight jumps a fence. and casually about an active airstrip, briefcase in hand, before the police surround him.
But the most Sisyphean task for Bell’s team is to help with bird mitigation. Birds enjoy the airport, and despite the team’s day-to-day work to harass them (“harassment” is the official term used in documents) with trucks and sirens and fireworks-like noisemakers, plus other methods we’ll discuss shortly, birds never stay away. They can get used to almost anything.
It is only when you are on the ground, far outside the terminals and shops that sell ergonomic neck pillows, that it becomes clear how much natural greenery surrounds the airport. Wildlife includes coyotes, hundreds of federally protected gopher tortoises, and walking catfish crawling out of Fish Creek, a stream adjacent to the airport after a heavy rain.
However, the main safety concern is always birds. Live traps, with pigeon bait, are set up everywhere. When they catch certain birds, such as red-tailed hawks or red-shouldered hawks, the airport biologist puts a federal band around their leg to track them, then moves them to a nice and safer place for all parties.
Bell clearly appreciates the beauty of those birds of prey, and birds in general. He fostered a cockatiel that landed at the airport and adopted it as a pet. By guiding Cheddar, he wants to learn falconry himself. But he is also sober about what needs to be done to protect passengers.
“They get one hit,” he said of birds that have been moved from the airport but have been banned so they can be recognized. “When they come back, it’s clear they consider the airport their home.” Which means they must be killed.
Other birds don’t get strikes. Wildlife rules allow the airport to “take” exotic or wild birds such as pigeons indiscriminately. What does that mean if Cheddar isn’t there? The answer came quickly.
A Muscovy duck, a large sucker with a warty red face, was spotted at the airport during Cheddar’s recent patrol. Hurd tried to grab it with a towel, but wasn’t fast enough, so she flew Cheddar over and pinned it down. Cheddar was quickly returned to her kennel in the truck. Such a large duck can injure her. It can also be bad news for a jet engine.
Would the duck be moved? “Um, this bird is invasive, so she’s got to… go,” Hurd said.
There was a brief discussion of the options. Hurd carries a pair of scissors to quickly separate the egrets captured by Cheddar from their heads, but they wouldn’t work on a bird this size. If they put it in a bag, they could put the duck to sleep with the exhaust fumes from a truck, but the bag they had wasn’t strong enough. A shovel maybe? Suddenly, Bell appeared from behind another pickup at the airport with a shotgun.
BLAM! A plume of feathers.
This is how a situation like this is handled if Cheddar is not available.
The hunt was unexpectedly good for the off-season.
“Maybe I won’t have to feed you tonight,” Hurd said to Cheddar. It wasn’t just a casual remark. Falconry, like aviation, is a highly regulated industry. Falconers must weigh their birds to within half an ounce several times a day to maintain an accurate weight.
It takes years of training to become a general falconer, which is what Hurd, 34, is today. It takes a few more to become a certified master falconer, which Hurd will soon be. She spoke to Cheddar in a loving, teasing way.
‘Cheddar, what are you doing? You look like a pancake,” she said as the hawk spread its wings and leaned forward. When Cheddar missed an egret, Hurd blew a whistle and Cheddar flew back, grazing loudly at the side of the truck as she came through the window. Then she shit on Hurd’s leg.
“Beauty and grace,” said Hurd, his face straight.
After Cheddar made a successful flight to another egret, Hurd wiped the blood from Cheddar’s claws and realized something. “One more,” she said, “and we’ll match the record.”
That would be six in one day. Not enough to make a dent in the bird population, but the idea, said an airport spokesman, is for birds to associate the truck with a scary hawk.
With a few minutes left in Cheddar’s shift, time was running out. The truck approached a pair of cattle egrets not far from a runway where a Spirit Airlines flight with engines was running. Cheddar flew toward them and then continued to fly.
“No. No. No,” Bell said. “This is our nightmare.”
Cheddar landed on the wing of the plane.
Hurd banged on the roof of the truck, screamed and blew the whistle as loud as she could. Cheddar looked around, probably surprised someone with a window seat, and eventually flew back to the truck.
The airport is a monument to man’s victory over physics, and Cheddar that day was an example of our control over nature — almost.
The truck drove off. The hunt was over. Those particular egrets were alive.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.