Every once in a while, a pilot taxiing at San Francisco International Airport reports to air traffic controllers that a dog has somehow wandered onto the tarmac. Patiently, the airport’s control tower assures the pilot that there’s no dog menacing the runways. It’s just a plastic coyote.
Like all airports, SFO competes for space with local wildlife. An aviation bird strike can be disastrous, as the world learned in 2009 when a US Airways jet collided with a flock of geese and had to ditch in New York City’s Hudson River. An alligator was run over and killed at Orlando Executive Airport last June. Moose can be a hazard at Alaskan airports. John F. Kennedy International Airport has a well-documented turtle problem.
Working within state and federal wildlife laws, airports must find ways to attempt to prevent animals from impacting the safety of air travel — and vice versa. That’s where SFO’s pack of four plastic coyotes comes in. They’re there as scarecrows.
SFO’s wildlife problem is mainly birds: gulls, barn owls, sandpipers, red-tailed hawks, and white-tailed kit hawks. Through September, the airport had experienced more than 50 bird strikes in 2017, one of which damaged a Southwest Airlines jet. “Bird strikes are pretty common,” says Natalie Reeder, SFO’s full-time staff biologist. “Damage to aircraft is pretty common. Actual accidents are pretty rare.”
Reeder is part of a 36-person airport safety officer (ASO) team at SFO that has developed a three-tiered plan to keep animals away from flight paths. First, they try to eliminate things that attract animals to the airport. Next is the rather alarmingly named “animal harassment” plan: efforts to suggest to the animals that they hang out elsewhere.
The coyotes play a key part in the harassment scheme. The plastic canids swivel and have shiny Mylar ribbons for tails — meant to make the coyotes look real and frightening to birds. (If for some reason you want your own plastic coyote, they’re available from online retailers for up to $100.) Posted next to the fake predators and throughout the tarmac are speakers that omit predatory wails and growls.
When plastic coyotes, noisemakers and other scare tactics don’t work, there’s a third option available to airport officials. “Lethal control” permits the ASOs to kill an animal if it is in real danger of causing a serious accident. But that’s strictly a last resort.
Reeder says wildlife strikes are simply a part of modern aviation life. And maybe not so modern. After all, she deadpans (and aviation experts confirm), “The Wright brothers hit a bird.”