Wildlife study reduces bird strikes

Cayman’s airports are safer due to a wildlife study conducted by St. Matthew’s University School of Veterinary Medicine.

It was commissioned by the Cayman Islands Airports Authority and conducted over a full calendar year to study wildlife on the airport grounds during different times of year and learn more about how to refine wildlife hazard management procedures at Cayman’s airports. 

The project leader was Scott Taylor, a professor at the university, who conducted the research along with a group of students.

“We approached a few organisations and when I first contacted St Matthew’s University, they thought it was a brilliant idea, and right from the start Dr. Taylor could understand the need for it and he was willing to volunteer his time and his students in any way, shape or form he could help the airport out,” said Andrew McLaughlin, senior manager, Safety Management Systems, for the Airports Authority.

According to Mr. Taylor, the project was an ideal opportunity to help the community.

“It’s a big help to the airport and everyone who uses the airport – not just the community here but people who fly in and out from other places. It makes it a safer place just by us providing this information to the airport. I think it has a great benefit and we’re happy to be involved in it,” he said.

The students had to go through all the necessary safety training to be allowed to work on the airport grounds and were at all times accompanied by a member of the airport staff to serve as their driver in order to see to it that all safety procedures were adhered to.

The study soon uncovered a number of patterns that were useful to the safety personnel at the airport.

“The species that seem to be the greatest threat are the egrets, there are actually three species that we see out there – snowy egrets, cattle egrets and great egrets. We’ve seen some interesting patterns there – the snowy egrets tend to come when it’s wet out there, while the cattle egrets tend to come when it’s dry, and then the great egrets tend to hang out by the ponds, so there are definitely species preferences. Just knowing things like that gives the safety office an idea of when to expect certain types of wildlife out there,” said Mr. Taylor.

The study has already helped the airport refine its wildlife hazard 
management procedures.

“About six months into their programme we asked for an update, which we were given by Dr. Taylor, and based on some information that we received on the habits of the birds at that time and the other wildlife we were able to institute some methods and we also took into account some mitigations that we would do based on his information of where the birds were located and their patterns and habits,” said Mr. McLaughlin.

Although the airport does not release information on the number of wildlife related incidents recorded, Mr. McLaughlin said that the number of incidents have remained relatively constant over the last 10 years. However, the changes instituted after the six month report has already caused a big reduction in incidents.

“I’m happy to say that within the first year we had a goal that this would help us reduce our bird strike incidents by a third and right now I can report that by the end of the 2010 year we were able to reduce the bird strikes by two thirds so we had doubled what we had projected,” said Mr. McLaughlin.

Some of the changes instituted have been quite visible, including the removal of most of the bulrushes surrounding the ponds at the end of the runway. However, other changes will take considerably more work.

“The irrigation is an ongoing problem, and we have plans to increase the irrigation, as there is a definite correlation between standing water and the number of birds that visit, so we know that is our next plateau, is to increase the irrigation, and that is a very large project,” said Mr. McLaughlin.

The research has also allowed the airport to adapt wildlife hazard management procedures to make them more effective.

“By learning [the birds’] habits and understanding when they are most eager to visit the airport we can take steps like for instance we’ll put out the air cannons that just deter them altogether from stopping here. There are a lot of other places that look better than an airport with a gas cannon making a big bang,” said Mr. McLaughlin.

The last leg of the study is to bring in a certified wildlife biologist from the United States.

“Through the whole process he has been aware of how they were collecting the data. He will come visit the airport, do his own assessment, collate their data, crunch it all together and he will advise us on how we can improve our wildlife hazard management programme, so we hope to continue to decrease the problem by a third each year,” according to Mr. McLaughlin.

wildlife study

From left, Scott Taylor and Marika Kolegue look on as Janelle Canty points out some wildlife.
Photo: Eugene Bonthuys