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

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; C01

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

"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."

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.

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."

* * *

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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