Web Content Viewer (JSR 286)

Learning How Birds Perceive Aircraft


Learning How Birds Perceive Aircraft

photo of geese in pen with approaching plane Two-thirds of bird strikes resulting in serious aircraft damage occur between zero and 500 feet above ground level. However, a substantial number of strikes also occur between 501 and 3,500 above ground level. At that height, certain ground-level dispersal methods, like loud noises or bird-chasing dogs, are ineffective. Thus, there is a need to identify new ways to lessen strikes for aircrafts at higher altitudes.

NWRC researchers in Sandusky, Ohio, and their collaborators from Indiana State University, Purdue University, Precise Flight, Premises Control, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are learning more about how birds detect and respond to approaching aircraft. Specifically, researchers are investigating whether the use of pulsing lights can make aircraft more visible to birds. The idea comes from more than a decade of anecdotal information.

In 1999, NWRC Research Wildlife Biologist Dr. Brad Blackwell was contacted by Precise Flight, Inc. The company told him they had an FAA-approved pulsing light system for planes that was being used to enhance pilot-to-pilot and pilot-to-ground visibility. In addition, bush pilots in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska noticed that the pulsing lights also seemed to reduce bird strikes. The company asked if Wildlife Services had any information to support this; and thus was the start of a long-term partnership to investigate how birds perceive lights and aircraft.
"Vision is a primary sensory pathway in birds. While birds, like humans, see in color, they have different photoreceptors and can see beyond the range we can," notes Brad Blackwell. "The anecdotal evidence from Alaskan pilots is interesting and we want to test whether birds are, in fact, detecting and avoiding the pulsing lights. If so, maybe we can modify aircraft lighting systems on commercial airlines as well."
This summer, Brad Blackwell and his collaborators conducted experiments with captive Canada geese and a remote-controlled plane outfitted with the Precise Flight lighting system. Geese with clipped wings were placed in a 56-foot diameter enclosure, surrounded by high-speed video cameras to capture the birds' response to the approaching plane. The plane made multiple approaches to each set of birds, some with the lights on and some with them off. Researchers are evaluating the video footage frame by frame to see if the lights improved the birds' detection and avoidance of the plane. The findings are promising and researchers are optimistic their efforts will result in new methods to help birds detect and avoid aircraft in the air. This will add another tool in the wildlife hazard mitigation toolbox and complement existing wildlife management on airports.

For more information, please contact nwrc@aphis.usda.gov.