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

Begier prefers not to dwell on the executions and prefers to see himself as a protector of his fellow man. Still, he acknowledged that the morbid fact of his job "doesn't get easier" with time.

"It can be very upsetting," said Begier, who donned a hard hat to personally remove the bird remains from the engine of Flight 1549. "But at the end of the day, it's for safety."

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Canada geese are hardly the only avian menace darkening America's skies. According to the FAA Wildlife Strike Database, which Begier's office maintains, the Washington area has endured its share of close calls. In March 2006, a United Airlines flight sustained "substantial" damage at Dulles from a collision with a four-ounce European starling, or "feathered bullet," in Wildlife Services parlance. A year later, a Mesa Airlines plane hit a Canada goose and suffered serious damage. Last year, an "Unknown bird -- large" severely damaged an American flight leaving Reagan National Airport. Red-tailed hawks and horned grebes have also wrought havoc on planes in recent years, and collisions with mallards, rock pigeons and mourning doves are common.

In the nearly 20 years that Begier's office has kept track of such things, 24 aircraft have been destroyed by collisions with wildlife, but that accounts for only about 1 percent of all reported strikes. In nearly every case, the animal gets the worst of it. But when plane damage did occur, the birds tended to go for the most sensitive parts: the engine, wings, rotors and nose.

In April 2008, a turkey vulture crashed through the windshield of a Piper Aerostar (normally a six-seater) during approach to a Colorado Springs airport, knocking the pilot's headset off and temporarily blinding him with blood and 200 mph winds. The airport cleared the runway and he landed safely. In July 2009 in Utah, the nose of an Embraer 120 (larger than the Piper) smashed into a pelican on takeoff and had to return to the airport for $150,000 in repairs.

On the eve of his takeoff to Australia, Begier said he was not concerned about his own safety, because all the D.C. airports have a federal biologist on the payroll.

"We have a great team at Ronald Reagan Airport," he said. "Not a lot of people know that."

As competent a professional as he is, Begier is but one man up against centuries of flawed fowl policy.

On Nov. 15, 1877, members of the American Acclimatization Society met in the reading room of the New York Aquarium to discuss beautifying the city with "English titmouse, chaffinch, blackbird, robin redbreast." They lamented the 50 pairs of English skylark that had unfortunately "all crossed the East River," but the European starling held promise, especially for Eugene Schieffelin, a drug manufacturer from the Bronx, who had a lofty ornithological vision of importing all of the some 60 bird species mentioned in Shakespeare's works. (The eerily human-sounding voice of the starling -- a flock is called a murmuration -- merited a mention in "Henry IV," when Hotspur says, "A starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer.") In 1890, Schieffelin disastrously released a few score of glossy black Sturnus vulgaris in Central Park.

Their 200 million starling descendants have come home to roost, and the burden rests on Begier to blast them out of the flight path. It's a serious job, but sometimes he can't help but take pleasure in his work, as, for instance, when he talks about using food in cages to trap the "social" starlings.

"You can attract a few," Begier said, a smile beginning to spread across his face. "And that attracts more."


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