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.
The winning bidder for the Bagram contract must obtain an Afghan permit for the falcons and any other permits that the Kabul government might require. The U.S. government will supply land and materials on Bagram to build mews -- the large cages used to house falcons, hawks or other birds of prey.
Other acceptable techniques proposed in the solicitation include "bird distress audio tapes" that would be broadcast from vehicles with "an operational yellow rotating light on top."
Pyrotechnics also are permissible, though specific devices must be recommended or approved by an Air Force safety representative. Lastly, the use of firearms for "bird depredation purposes" is acceptable "in accordance with Air Force Regulations and local laws."
The Air Force at Bagram has established three "Bird Watch Conditions": low, moderate and severe.
Holmes said moderate conditions at Bagram mean that "concentrations of approximately 5 to 15 large birds (egrets, waterfowl, or larger birds) or approximately 15 to 30 small birds (sparrows, plovers, etc.) are within the flight line." At the moderate level, which occurs 25 percent of the time, "caution" is required by aircrews, no formation takeoffs or landings are allowed, and low landing approaches are restricted.
Severe conditions include a "heavy concentration of bird activity on or immediately above the active runway (up to 3,000 feet) . . . representing high potential for strikes," he said. At that level, aircrews must evaluate mission needs before conducting operations.
The contract solicitation states that the bird control contract employees at Bagram must begin their workday 60 minutes before sunrise and finish 60 minutes after sunset, seven days a week. The contract manager or an employee must be "on call" 24 hours a day, seven days a week, "for verbal communication concerning bird strikes."
The Air Force might consider seeking help at its academy in Colorado Springs, where the falcon is the school mascot and 12 live falcons are in residence along with 14 cadet falconers, three supervisors and a civilian master falconer. But four of the falcons are performers at football game halftimes and all are fed by hand so they will be comfortable among people, according to John Van Winkle of the cadet falconry team.
"We don't train them to hunt," he said.