Wanted: Falcons, Handlers For Mission in Afghanistan

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

The U.S. Air Force, a high-tech wonder of precision missiles and pilotless surveillance drones, is looking for a few good falcons.

Live falcons, that is, ones with feathers and talons, the kind that hunt mice and small birds.

U.S. aircraft at the sprawling Bagram air base in Afghanistan are coming under increasing attack -- not from al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters but from "many small songbirds, pigeons, Magpies, Hawks and Black Kites," according to a bid request for a "bird control services" contract issued by the Army last month.

Previous attempts at controlling the birds have failed. Personnel have shot "bangers and screamers" at the birds -- rockets that can travel hundreds of yards as they give off a siren-like noise, followed by a loud bang. Shotguns have been tried, too.

There were 125 bird strikes against aircraft taking off, landing or taxiing at Bagram from January through Nov. 1, a sharp increase from the 78 recorded in the same period last year, according to officials at the base. So now the military is seeking a private contractor to provide "personnel, equipment, tools, materials, supervision, falconry and other items and services necessary to perform Bird Control Services at Bagram."

Although the contractor can choose its own strategy for suppressing the avian insurgents, it is clear that falconry is among the favored techniques. The Army's contract notice says that "each bird must be capable of airfield operations and each falconer must demonstrate falconry skills and bird control capability using birds of prey."

The spike in bird strikes is due to additional flights at Bagram as the pace of U.S. military operations in the country has increased. The airfield -- home to the Air Force's 455th Air Expeditionary Wing as well as U.S. Army and other coalition aircraft -- is now Afghanistan's busiest.

"Afghanistan poses its own set of unique wildlife challenges, particularly during spring and fall migration seasons," Brig. Gen. Mike Holmes, the commander of the 455th, said in a statement.

"Severe" bird activity occurs 15 percent of the time, when large soaring birds fly over the runways or in the runway flight paths, posing "a severe threat to aircraft," he said. At those times, all takeoffs and landings must be approved by the operations group commander.

"The worst period of the year is definitely March to May," when the birds' spring migration takes place, Holmes said. The spring season has coincided in the past with new Taliban and al-Qaeda offensives.

The contractor will be required to collect the remains of any bird that strikes an aircraft, identify it and provide a written report the following day. The bird remains are to be shipped to the Smithsonian Institution's Feather Identification Laboratory, which gathers data on bird strikes. The data will be studied by the Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration, which examine bird behavior and migratory patterns in an effort to reduce the hazards at airports and air bases.

Falcons "are good for removing pigeons, for example," said Carla Dove, a member of the Smithsonian's feather lab team. She said that aircraft "can't complete their missions if birds are caught in jet engines," adding that 98 percent of the problems occur during takeoffs and landings. Worldwide, bird strikes cost the Air Force about $35 million a year, according to a 2005 study.

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