Do island bird habitats pose a danger?

February 4, 2009 6:12:00 PM PST
New York City Parks and Recreation has spent a lot of time and tens of thousands of dollars making North and South Brothers Islands protected habitats for birds. The problem, according to some experts, is the islands sit about a mile from the end of one of LaGuardia's main runways.

"This is where the insanity comes in," wildlife biologist Steve Garber said.

Garber once directed the bird strike program at LaGuardia and JFK airports.

"What's flying through the airspace, what's landing, what's hanging out there, you don't need access to the airport to see how dangerous it is," he said.

And just across from the island sanctuaries, a city park filled with Canadian geese oblivious to planes taking off from nearby LaGuardia.

Yet, press releases from Parks and Recreation boast how the two island sanctuaries have created a "dramatic rise in the bird populations."

"Parks and Recreation needs to have its head examined," Garber said.

When Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia, North and South Brother Island Sanctuaries were about one-and-a-half miles to its west. As the jet headed north, it flew within two miles of Goose Island, another city bird sanctuary.

Seconds later, pilots radioed a bird strike and the plane started losing altitude as it headed for the Hudson.

"I predicted something just like that based on what we knew as a result of our study and the close proximity of a large bird population," aviation attorney Andrew Maloney said.

Data that we obtained from the Port Authority shows a dramatic increase in the number of reported bird strikes at LaGuardia in the last six years -- From 31 bird strikes in 2002 to 87 in 2007, nearly a tripling in the number of strikes.

Parks and Recreation insists its sanctuaries pose no threat to aircraft. Egrets and cormorants nest on the islands. Experts we spoke to say both can pose risk to aircraft. In 2004, a passenger jet had to make an emergency landing in Chicago after one engine ingested two cormorants and caught on fire.

"Each one of these birds that are wading birds, all get sucked into engines and all pose a threat. They all pose a threat," Garber said.

A spokesperson for Parks and Recreation says there is no causal link between birds nesting on these islands and any bird strikes. She said the Port Authority has not contacted parks about the issue.