TRAVEL

SFO’s Faux Coyotes

A plastic coyote patrols a runway at San Francisco International Airport to prevent birds from interfering with airplane traffic.
PENNI GLADSTONE
A plastic coyote patrols a runway at San Francisco International Airport to prevent birds from interfering with airplane traffic.
There are coyotes scattered across SFO’s runway aprons. But they’re not real—they’re plastic fakes intended to scare off birds from interfering with planes.

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.”

Natalie Reeder, SFO’s full-time staff biologist, 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 PENNI GLADSTONE

Natalie Reeder, SFO’s full-time staff biologist, 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

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.”