How Milwaukee-area airports deal with wildlife

It was like a scene from a movie. A commercial jet departing from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport struck a flock of geese. Immediately both engines of the Airbus A320 were disabled. Calm, expert decision making by the pilots brought the jet into a safe landing on the Hudson River. All 155 people aboard survived.

The January 2009 incident, now called the Miracle on the Hudson, brought to light a little-known issue in the aviation world.

While commercial airliners are rarely disabled to this extent, birds and even some mammals can interfere with airport operations.

According to the FAA, the number of reported strikes jumped from 1,850 in 1990 to 13,408 in 2016. During that same time frame, the number of airports reporting strikes nearly doubled — from 335 to 662.

Out of curiosity, I contacted the three airports located in the Milwaukee area. I was able to make contact with representatives of Mitchell International Airport and Waukesha County Airport. As of publish date, Timmerman Airport had not responded.

Mitchell International Airport (MKE)

With buildings and pavement spread across 2,180 acres and located in heavily developed Milwaukee County, Mitchell International isn’t very attractive to wildlife.

Henri Woods is a wildlife biologist for the USDA and has an office at Mitchell Airport. Reached by email, Woods said that Mitchell has “infrequent” issues with birds. He said most mitigation steps involve removing food, water and shelter for wildlife. “Removing these items makes the airport environment less accommodating to wildlife,” Woods said. Wildlife activity is most common spring through autumn.

Mitchell served more than 6.5 million passengers throughout 2018, according to airport information.

Waukesha County Airport (UES)

Waukesha County Airport is located along the northern edge of Waukesha, a community of 70,710 roughly 15 miles west of Milwaukee. Also known as Crites Field, the airport claims to be the busiest general aviation airport in Wisconsin.

According to Kurt Stanich, Airport Manager, birds are an issue but rarely cause damage. “Sometimes planes don’t even know that they’ve been hit,” he said in a phone interview.

A common problem is the mess birds leave on airport lights, requiring regular cleaning.

Songbird strikes are more common in summer, while spring and autumn bring flocks of migrating geese and ducks.

Fairly new to the area are snowy owls. First arriving two or three years ago, the owls blend with with snow and runway paint. In addition, the birds fly low to the ground. “Just perfect to get hit by plane departing,” Stanich said.

The airport also sees an occasional deer or coyote near the perimeter. Those usually can be chased away.

Mitigation takes several forms

Staff use methods to reduce the likelihood of insects and rodents — which attract birds — from taking hold on the property.

Grassy areas are mowed frequently so they don’t attract migratory birds, particularly geese.

Flocks of birds are dispersed with a two-pronged approach. Starter pistols, which create a loud bang, flush the birds. Crews then fire “screamers” to get the birds to fly in the desired direction.

To keep birds out of the T-style hangars, airplane owners hang CDs and DVDs from the ceiling. The disks sway in the breeze, deterring birds from entering and nesting.

Stanich noted that the airport tries to strike a delicate balance between ensuring airport safety and respecting wildlife. “We try to be mindful of our avian brethren.”

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Tom Fuszard
New Berlin, Wisconsin

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