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Bird hit man Michael J. Begier loves his human-life-saving job

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By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Michael J. Begier is a mild-mannered government official who loves his job.

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"It's fascinating work," said Begier, the national coordinator of the Department of Agriculture's Airport Wildlife Hazards Program. In bird-loving circles, Begier has another job title.

"Contract killer," hissed Patrick Kwan, an official with the Humane Society of the United States.

Begier, 40, is the man who makes troublesome birds go away. The wildlife biologist is the government's point man for drafting and executing policies to eradicate avian threats from the friendly skies. His office is on the speed dial of cities, states and airports swarmed by winged saboteurs, especially the Canada geese, European starlings and European rock pigeons that perch atop the current ornithological terror list.

"We're the federal office people turn to when there is a wildlife situation," said Begier, as pigeons circled a hot-dog stand outside his Independence Avenue SW office.

Since January 2009, when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 struck some Canada geese and caused the high-profile "Miracle on the Hudson" landing, Begier has been very busy.

There are now 3.89 million Canada geese in the United States -- and 1 million on the East Coast -- up from 230,000 in 1970. There are not enough predators to keep them in check. That's where Begier comes in. Between October 2008 and September 2009, the last year statistics are available, Begier's colleagues at Wildlife Services chased away 400,000 geese from golf courses, athletic fields, gated communities and other places where lawns are plentiful and man and animal come in conflict. But at airports, Begier said, "there is zero tolerance."

Last year, Wildlife Services technicians euthanized 24,000 geese, a full 10,000 more than the year before. Most are gassed in CO2 chambers, but those in close proximity to planes at airports are dispatched with a gunshot. Begier and his team have sought to raise awareness of the peril from above, but airport wildlife biologists warn that only about a third of bird strikes are even reported.

* * *

On a recent workday afternoon, Begier walked to his office down the squeaky hallways of the Department of Agriculture. He wore a blue tie and a pen in the pocket of his checkered shirt. Balding and sporting a '90s boy-band beard, he had just finished a strategy session where he imparted best bird-whacking practices to a delegation of Nigerians ("They are very professional"). Back in his office, he hurriedly prepared for an international bird-strike committee conference at Cairns Airport in Australia, where he would deliver a paper titled "On Board and on the Ground: New Strategies to Reduce Bird Strikes."

Begier came to the bird issue after forestry college in Syracuse, silviculture research in Arkansas -- "to grow pine more effectively for pulp and paper products," he specified -- and then a largely successful effort to keep deer off the runways at the military airport in Cherry Point, N.C. ("Eighty-nine percent of the time the deer and the plane collide, the deer dies. But there is also plane damage.")

"Getting out of school, did I think I'd be here?" Begier said in a moment of reflection. "No."


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