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Frequently Asked Questions -
Norfolk International Airport Eagle Management

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What is happening to the Norfolk eagle nest?
A partnership of wildlife management agencies has recommended for the safety of aviation, residents near the airport, and the Bald Eagles themselves, that the eagle nests on the Norfolk Botanical Gardens next to the Norfolk International Airport should be dismantled and that eagles not be allowed to nest at the garden.


Why is removal of the eagle nest recommended?
Two eagles were struck and killed in 2011 at Norfolk International Airport, with at least one of these strikes causing damage to the aircraft.  Of the two pairs known to nest on the airport or adjoining property, at least one member of each pair has been struck and killed by an aircraft.

Allowing wildlife to remain in the airport environment does not benefit the animals: of 14 Bald Eagles in Virginia that have been involved in aircraft strikes, nine of them were killed and two injured.  [The fate of the eagles in three other strikes is unknown.]  The nests also attract additional eagles seeking a nest site.

Between 1997 and 2009, seven eagle-aircraft strikes were reported in Virginia, with never more than one per year.  From 2010 - 2012, seven eagle-aircraft strikes were reported, five of which occurred in the Norfolk and Newport News area. 

A recent study ranks Bald Eagles near the top of species most likely to cause damage when struck by aircraft.  In a list of 77 species, Bald Eagles ranked 14th, tied with a gull species.   [Interspecific Variation in Wildlife Hazards to Aircraft].  Although strikes are rare, 40% of them cause damage to aircraft.  (Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States 1990-2009 page 42).  As eagle populations have increased, so have the number of eagle strikes with aircraft.  Average eagle strikes per year increased seven-fold in the contiguous states since 1990.

Why is the airport next to a botanical garden?
Both the airport and the botanical garden were established in this location in the 1930s.  In that decade, less than four Bald Eagles were reported in the annual bird survey in Virginia.  Little was known about the potential for airport wildlife hazards and bird strikes at that time.  Concerns related to bird strikes intensified in the 1980s and 1990s.

What is being done at the airport to prevent eagle strikes?
The airport holds a permit to disperse eagles from the airport.  Airport staff and federal biologists regularly chase eagles that attempt to land at the airport.  The airport also has adopted recommendations for increased patrols and eagle dispersal, especially during eagle feeding periods.  This strategy is designed to reduce use of the airfield by all eagles, including immature and transient eagles.  Norfolk International Airport is a large urban airport (1,300 acres), and wildlife managers must protect nearly seven miles of perimeter fence from wildlife incursions.

Despite these challenges, the airport has enhanced strike reporting procedures and reduced strikes to many wildlife species including especially hazardous Canada Geese (see below).  Faced with a similar situation, Norfolk Airport implemented a new wildlife hazard management plan in 2003 to confront a rapidly growing strike problem with Canada Geese and other species.  The airport and its partners have been able to reduce strikes from other species by intensifying efforts on the airport and working with neighboring properties to reduce wildlife runway incursions by these species.

VA State eagle management chart
Who recommended removal of the eagle nests?

A routine wildlife hazard assessment was undertaken between 2010 and 2011, which identified the hazard represented by the nests in close proximity to the airport.  During the evaluation period, two eagles were struck.  Biologists who work at the airport to reduce wildlife strike risks made the recommendation.

Biologists examined a combination of factors including strike history, nest proximity to the airport, eagle activity on the airport, damage from other documented eagle strikes, attractiveness of nests to other eagles, eagle status in Virginia, and many habitat variables.  The Airport, Botanical Garden, Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have been a part of these discussions throughout the process. 

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Airport, and the USDA Wildlife Services program examined options and agreed that nest removal should be part of an integrated eagle management approach. The Botanical Garden has been advised of the concerns and options throughout the process.  The Federal Aviation Administration concurs with the recommendation.  The USFWS, which manages eagles under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, issues permits to protect human safety in such cases.   The DGIF, the state wildlife agency, will provide needed state permits.

What options were considered?
Options considered included trimming trees, installation of devices to prevent use of the nests, intensive chasing of the eagles from the airport and surrounding properties, and no action.

Could Bird Avoidance Radar Help for Eagle Hazards in Norfolk?
Several types of radar systems are currently under development and in use for bird strike applications.  Bird Avoidance Radars are developed to serve several purposes, including hazard assessment, air operations planning, and real-time detection and response.  Response can include dispatching staff to disperse wildlife or altering aircraft activities to avoid hazardous situations.

Commercially available radar systems do not disperse wildlife, are not deterrents, and do not eliminate wildlife hazards themselves.  These systems are designed to identify sources of hazardous wildlife, inform wildlife managers and airport authorities of wildlife movement patterns, and alert appropriate personnel to hazardous conditions.  Staff must then act on the information through dispersal, removal of an attractant, habitat management, pilot notification, or planning options.

Although radars are marketed for wildlife strike reduction, their application for these purposes remains under review and development.  In particular, the detection and accuracy of species identification and the best combination of radar types for airport use are under evaluation by universities and government scientists.  The FAA has issued an Advisory Circular on application of Bird Avoidance radar (AC 150 5220/25).

The techniques used to evaluate the wildlife hazards surrounding Norfolk International Airport are those prescribed the Federal Aviation Administration, were applied by biologists certified in airport wildlife management by an FAA-approved program, and the conclusions reached in the assessment were reviewed and approved the FAA.

For the sake of human and wildlife safety, detection of hazards or wildlife concentrations should trigger an effort to remove or reduce those hazards whether they are identified by radar, strike record, or bird surveys.  Options for evasive action and altered approach and departure routes by aircraft in Norfolk are extremely limited by in-flight safety, noise restrictions, programmed speed and altitude restrictions, and congested airspace.  Therefore, the best alternative remains to move the center of nest-related eagle activity farther from the aircraft operations area.

What will happen to the eagles?
It is expected that the eagles will find an alternate nest location away from the airport, which we hope will be safer for them.

What do the eagles do at the airport?
The airport is located near the bay and is surrounded by lakes and large trees.  Unfortunately, the airport environment is attractive to eagles and many other types of wildlife.  Eagles have been observed fishing, eating, resting, and flying at and near the airport.

Won’t removal of the nests of a territorial pair affect eagle behavior in the area?
Eagles are territorial and will most actively defend the area directly surrounding the nest, but juvenile and sub-adult eagles will still gather in areas with abundant food resources.  Territorial adults will tolerate juvenile or sub-adult eagles nearby if food resources are plentiful.  Therefore, active territorial defense is largely limited to the area immediately surrounding the nest.

The size of an eagle’s territory varies widely depending on the area, season, availability of, and distance to food resources.  Nesting territories will be smaller in areas with abundant food resources and larger in areas with fewer resources.  Unfortunately, a territorial pair no longer exists because the female was struck and killed.  The strike risk for territorial eagles may be higher if they spend more time near the airport than transient eagles which are just passing through.

What is a safe distance for eagles from the airport?
There is no recognized safe distance from an airport for eagle nests.  The safety of eagles associated with a certain nest will depend on eagles’ particular behavior.  The nest is the center of increased activity for the pair and fledglings during the nesting season, so shifting this concentrated activity farther away from aircraft movement areas enhances safety for eagles and aircraft.

Because of the increasing concern about eagle strike hazards, the DGIF and its partners have initiated research to evaluate these strike hazards, which should lead to more refined management strategies. 

Who would carry out the nest removal and when will it happen?
Nest removal by a licensed contractor should occur during the non-breeding season.  Experienced biologists and technicians with the USDA Wildlife Services program will conduct dispersal activities and monitor the area for any evidence of re-nesting near the airport.  These activities will be conducted in close consultation with biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.  

What other management actions are recommended?
State and federal biologists recommend a monitoring and dispersal program to accompany nest removal.  It’s important for biologists to assess eagle habits at the garden and surrounding areas to detect nesting attempts and observe eagle foraging habits.  Biologists will disperse eagles attempting to nest at the garden, on Lake Whitehurst, and on airport property.  Wildlife dispersal may include many tools and approaches for moving birds.  The most effective approaches combine varied timing of several tools and techniques.  Commonly used tools include pyrotechnics, paintball guns, and chasing by personnel to make the birds feel uncomfortable. This approach is designed to prevent foraging and re-nesting near the airport.  Dispersal to prevent nesting would be focused during the breeding season during winter and spring.   

What happens to the nest?
Nesting material, which is comprised of sticks and other plant debris, would be removed by a contractor and must be destroyed.  Nest materials will be chipped, buried or incinerated.  Possession of any part of an eagle or eagle nest without an appropriate permit is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, so the permit holder and the landowner will be responsible for ensuring that the nest is properly destroyed.

Will these actions be successful?
We hope that moving the eagles from the airport will be successful in reducing the risk of strikes and the loss of eagles, although strikes cannot be totally eliminated.  Habitat management, dispersal, and nest removal have been conducted to successfully reduce the incidence and risk of strikes from other species such as gulls and Canada Geese at this same location.

What can I expect from eagle dispersal activities?
Bird dispersal to protect aircraft passengers is not new to Norfolk.  Eagle dispersal is already occurring at Norfolk International Airport and dispersal of other species using the same tools is already applied periodically on Lake Whitehurst and other nearby public properties.  Enhanced dispersal may occur on public lands surrounding the airport as needed to protect the eagles and arriving and departing aircraft.  Eagle dispersal would occur in discreet events only when eagles are present, and would not be a continuous, day-long, or year-long disturbance.  Wildlife Specialists would use dispersal tools including paintball guns and pyrotechnics to frighten the eagles from potential nesting sites that would pose hazards to the birds and to passengers and prevent the eagles from re-nesting so near the runways.  These activities would be applied on a case-by-case basis with the minimum disturbance required to move the birds during times of the year when eagles are attempting to nest.  Although these techniques are necessarily designed to disturb birds using harmless loud noises, applications of these techniques will only be applied to the degree needed, with frequency and duration proportional to the birds’ response.

What is the situation for Bald Eagles in Virginia?
Bald Eagles in Virginia have experienced a dramatic recovery from a low of 30 breeding pairs in the early 1970s to more than 730 pairs in 2011 that produced more than 980 chicks. These numbers do not include migrating or transient eagles or non-breeding off-spring of nests.  From Virginia Beach to Hampton, Virginia there are more than a dozen nests. The Bald Eagle population along the historic James River has increased from 0 pairs in the 1970s to 174 pairs in 2011, and is one of the best examples of how this species has made a dramatic recovery within the Chesapeake Bay.  This Virginia population has now exceeded the recovery goal for the entire Chesapeake Bay.

The USFWS moved Bald Eagles from protection under the Endangered Species Act to protection under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 2007.  Questions regarding Bald Eagle management and protection can be asked of Meagan Racey, Public Affairs Specialist, USFWS-Northeast Region, at 413-253-8558.

The Board of Game and Inland Fisheries has removed Bald Eagles from the state endangered species list, as of January 1, 2013.  Information about Bald Eagles in Virginia is available at http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/birds/bald-eagles.

I enjoyed watching the Eagle Cam and it was an educational experience, are there other opportunities online? 
There are a variety of similar opportunities available on the internet. Use search words such as “eagle cam” to locate them.

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Last Modified: November 27, 2012

2012 WS Informational Notebook


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