BIRD strikes, (airplane engines and/or landing gear colliding with birds), are a growing problem as they have become frequent, very expensive and sometimes fatal.

In 2019 alone, there were 16,000 reported incidents, averaging more than 45 per day. 

The problem of bird strikes has cost the aviation industry an average of $50,000 per incident or more than $1.2 billion a year.

Interestingly, there are some creative efforts are under way at various Spanish Airports to mitigate this problem.  Let’s take a look….

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Falconer with Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) to keep other birds away from airports. Photo: Cordon Press

Airport safety committees throughout the world have experimented with various methods of controlling the number of birds that pose a danger to air transport. Examples include controlling the number of local bird populations, removing local surface water and eliminating food sources (eg, land-fill dumps). Officials have also tried flying drones that emit sounds to repeal troublesome birds. Additionally, they have tried using pyrotechnics, flashing lights, loud speakers, poison, bird detecting radar – all with limited success.

Ironically, the most promising attempt at bird strike mitigation involves bringing in more birds! In this case, birds of prey – namely falcons.

Felix Rodriquez de la Fuente, Spain’s ‘father of modern-day environmentalism’ and television personality, was the first to introduce falconry units to Spanish airports.

Iberia Barajas A350 Vulture Bird Strikecontroladores Twitter
Iberia A350 after hitting a vulture at Barajas aiport. Photo: Controladores/Twitter

In 1968 he teamed up with airport safety officials with falconers in an attempt to rid the airport of bird strikes. The falcons are trained to circumnavigate the airport at various times of the day making a time-tested statement that they, the falcons, are in control.

Falcons have exceptional powers of vision with a visual acuity 2.6 times that of the human eye. Furthermore, their ability to change direction is unprecedented. Combine these attributes with the fact that falcons are the fastest moving creatures on earth with a diving speed of 200 miles per hour!

Instinctively other birds like pigeons, doves, sea gulls, geese and other waterfowl, will sense extreme danger and flee the area to stay well clear of their natural enemy.

Paraguay Asuncion Environment Falconry
Falcons are used to keep airports clear of birds. Photo: XINHUA /LANDOV/Cordon Press

Today, 95% of the major airports in Spain use falcons as a bird strike deterrent. At Madrid’s Barajas airport, a ‘fleet’ of 70 Peregrine falcons have been trained to patrol their runways. From the Barajas control tower, authorities can call for the help of falcons to keep the sky clear if controllers decide there is a bird strike possibility.

Similarly Barcelona’s El Prat, an airport which averages some 22 bird strikes per year, employs a team of 80 falcons as an integral part of their safety programme.

Aside from their regular patrol, the falcons are on alert and often released in response to reported sightings of birds by pilots. This practice has not gone unnoticed at the Castellon Costa Azahar Airport (Valencia Province) where €90,000 of its safety budget is allotted to falconry. Malaga’s Costa del Sol Airport – Spain’s 4th busiest – has an established 30-year falcon programme with a safety record that continually trends positive thanks in part to its falcon fleet.

Falconry has a 2,000-year cultural heritage in Spain. Records indicate that the use of falcons was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors where it has been practiced as the ‘sport of kings’, a military weapon, and as a way of hunting. To this list we can now add airport safety to the legacy of falcons in Spain.

Commercial Plane Lands In Hudson River
US Airways commercial flight 1549 was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River after striking a flock of geese. Photo: ©BAUER-GRIFFIN.COM/Cordon Press

                                                           Did you know?

  • William Shakespeare was a falconer and his word choice (especially in The Taming of the Shrew), reflects this fact. For example, to be ‘hoodwinked’ (deceived) is putting a leather hood on a falcon so it can’t see to fly. ‘Fed-up’ (disinterested) is when a bird has eaten too much of its prey. ‘Under my thumb’ (control) comes from falconers holding a falcon in such a way to restrict flight.
  • American aviation pioneers, the Wright Brothers, noted on their second recorded flight in 1905, that they ‘hit a bird’ with their top wing.
  • Perhaps the most famous bird strike occurred in January, 2009 when a US Airways flight successfully (and heroically!) landed powerless in New York’s Hudson River. The plane, with 155 passengers on board, had ‘ingested’ so many Canadian geese that all engines were shut down. The incident was made into the Academy Award winning film, Sully: Miracle on the Hudson starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood. 


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