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Nature & Environment

DFW Airport’s Scare Tactics

Wildlife administrator and biologist Cathy Boyles keeps the birds away so you can fly safely.
By Nancy Nichols |

What exactly does a wildlife biologist do at an airport?

DFW Airport is 17,200 acres, about the size of Manhattan. I monitor and implement best practices to ensure the airport minimizes wildlife attractants on our property. I also work with a planning department and commercial development to make sure landscape plans do not include wildlife-attracting vegetation. The Aircraft Operations Area is a smaller fenced safety area where our aircraft taxi, take off, and land. This is where bird and mammal dispersal takes place. I work to minimize damaging strikes in the airport area, and I generate strike reports.

How did you end up as a wildlife biologist?

Our family used to vacation in rural Wisconsin every year. I was up every morning at dawn, out stomping the woods. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a veterinarian or a jockey. I wasn’t good at school, so I gave up veterinary medicine, and then I got too tall to be a jockey. My parents took me on a field trip to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and I always remembered that trip. I ended up getting my bachelor’s degree in wildlife management from there. After I had my kids, I got my master’s degree in biology at UTA. Ten years ago, my husband saw this job listing at the airport. I just love having a job that allows me to contribute to the safety of people and animals. 

What is the busiest time of the year when it comes to keeping critters away from airplanes?

From June until the end of November. Migratory events play in to the activity, but in the summer you have parents and babies moving around. There are a lot of fledglings seeking their way, and reptiles, turtles, and frogs are all moving around. 

Which bird species gives you the most trouble?

It’s difficult to answer that, because it changes from year to year. Last year, pigeons were our biggest challenge. Not just the higher numbers of them, but their flocking behavior presented a higher risk for danger than, say, a smaller, loose flock of sparrows. In the past, starlings and blackbirds have been a problem. We’ve done a really good job of mitigating our blackbird roosting activity through our falconry program. We contract with a master falconer who uses Harris’s Hawks to move the birds. The first year we did this, it took nine nights of using two or three falconers with two or three hawks each to rid the terminals of roosting blackbirds. Now if a bird flock builds up, it may take one or two nights. They seemed to have learned something. 

Do different species react differently to deterrents?

We use a number of pyrotechnic noisemaker-type dispersal tools. One is like a small starter pistol with a sparkler effect. We also have propane cannons situated on the airfield and have some mounted on our vehicles, so they are on demand. Killdeers and swallows couldn’t care less about loud sounds, but a flock of mourning doves or pigeons will move.

How do you find the flocks?

We are a host site for a radar research project. We have two avian bird radar units. I have a display of activity in my office that is in real time. The radar is still in the testing phase. I don’t want to rely on it too much at this time, but I do see migratory activity. One time, they gave me a video loop, and I looked at an hour of activity in two minutes. I saw a large flock of birds leaving one of our terminal areas. I went out there, and, sure enough, there was a large flock. I called the falconer, and that situation was a done deal. 


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