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Bird hit man Michael J. Begier loves his human-life-saving job
And yet he has gone on to great distinction in his field, attested by a Special Achievement for Wildlife Mitigation Award from the FAA propped on a bookcase. The posters hanging around the room speak to his passion. On one wall, a poster showing a plane taking off right into a flock of geese read "Strike One -- You're Out." On another wall, a framed poster pondered: "When does a goose become an elephant?" The answer: "When it collides with an aircraft!"
"High school physics," Begier explained matter-of-factly.
Flight 1549's Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's heroic day marked a declaration of war on anti-aircraft fowl and elevated Begier's office to global renown. "The international community is very interested in what we are doing in the United States," Begier said.
He considers the address in Australia the "high point" in his career. His paper focuses on new scientific research about how pulsating lights on planes can trigger "fight-or-flight" instincts in birds. He's banking on flight, not fight. "It's very exciting," he said.
Begier argued that wildlife officials preferred less lethal options for bringing down the bird population. But chasing away geese with border collies, as some animal rights activists recommend, doesn't send the geese far enough away for good. Birth-control doses in bird food only attracted more flocks in the short term. Begier's teams have tried addling -- or violently shaking -- eggs. They have coated eggshells with corn oil to prevent chicks from hatching. These and other in-the-nest tactics did little; the full-grown geese population posed the same threat as ever.
For those flocks, a less subtle solution was required.
In June 2009, USDA authorities and New York City officials responded to the Canada geese collision with Flight 1549 by taking advantage of the molting season, when the birds cannot fly away and can be more easily rounded up and hauled off for execution. The birds were shipped to a nearby and undisclosed CO2 gas chamber. ("Bye-Bye Birdies," read a New York Post headline that week.) A few months later, a plane carrying New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg survived an avian collision, which the ill-fated bird did not. ("Kamikaze Goose Slams Mike's Jet," the New York Post wrote.) Then, in March, a Continental flight bound for Hong Kong from Newark smashed into a gaggle of Canada geese. (This time a New York Post reporter on the plane recounted: "It was a whole flocking family of geese.")
In July, Begier went to work. Early in the morning, with only a few joggers circling Prospect Park in Brooklyn, his team of wildlife specialists approached the sleepy lake and netted 400 Canada geese and goslings. They, too, were shipped to a nearby gas chamber. The dead included Sticky, a goose who had earned the city's affection in prior months for how he was still able to waddle around with his neck pierced by an arrow. A public outcry followed, and then, weeks later, hope glimmered on the lake as two dozen geese returned.
The sense of sanctuary was short-lived.
New York state and local officials have agreed to take the number of Canada geese down from 250,000 to 85,000. Begier's department has orders to follow.
"Our agency possesses the expertise to do this work most efficiently," Begier said.
The Wildlife Services euthanasia method is approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association. There are two acceptable inhalant agents, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, plus the last-resort gunshot option. Wildlife Services prefers the carbon dioxide method because it leaves no traces in the tissue. In Maryland, birds are donated to food banks. In Virginia, they are lunches for carnivores in zoos.