The Birdmen of PDX

A behind-the-scenes airport effort protects flying humans from avian threats.

By Michael Zusman January 2, 2014 Published in the January 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Nick Atwell, Portland International Airport’s aviation wildlife manager

For visitors jetting out post-holidays or Portlanders escaping winter, Portland International Airport inspires various worries. Security lines, handsy TSA agents, overstuffed economy cabins—all worth a quiver or two. 

But birds? Not many would even think about them. And that is exactly how Nick Atwell, the airport’s aviation wildlife manager, wants it. Atwell and his five-strong team of wildlife experts work on-site seven days a week, 17 hours a day to ward off bird strikes that can damage and even bring down an airplane. The threats come from larger-bodied, flocking birds that might encounter aircraft on takeoff or landing—and with PDX sitting squarely within the migratory Pacific Flyway and two rivers close by, there are plenty of these birds. Species include kestrels, hawks, and the ubiquitous geese and gulls. (The unit also deals with wandering coyotes and other animals.)

On a ride around the airfield in a bright-green truck packed with gear, Atwell reminds me it was a bird strike that led to the 2009 heroics of US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who famously landed a jet safely in New York’s Hudson River. (Nationally, bird strikes inflict $700 million in damage per year, according to the FAA.) At PDX, measures to prevent a Sully scenario are nearly invisible: horns, sirens, lasers, pyrotechnic (but nonlethal) shotgun blasts, and other forms of “hazing.” 

Most of the gear rides on board Atwell’s truck. Scattered A-frame-style traps snare birds for tagging, tracking, and release elsewhere. Atwell is proud that PDX primarily relies on nonlethal measures to keep birds at bay; other airports, he notes, can be “more aggressive, depending on their species, identified risks, and needs.” (He was too diplomatic to name names.) On the segment of NE Airport Way nearest the terminal, take note of gaps between trees and the absence of horizontal branches. Birds are being discreetly encouraged to flock elsewhere.

With all this effort, best reserve those airport anxieties for more likely risks—like getting stuck in the middle seat from PDX to BOS.

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