Winged defenders keep flightline fowl-free

Nate Cairney
Kaiserslautern American

Numerous crows cover the sandy turf near the construction site on Ramstein’s flightline, scarcely aware of the mortal threat parked 300 yards away in the little station wagon. Things change in a hurry, though, when Gerhard Wagner strolls around back, opens up a wooden box, and pulls out a hooded peregrine falcon.

***image1***This bird of prey is one of Ramstein’s staunchest defenders. Along with another falcon and an enormous hawk, it is part of Ramstein’s Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program, which is designed to keep the flightline clear of creatures that could cause potential danger to aircraft.

And, according to Master Sgt. William Cooper, 86th Operations Support Squadron airfield manager, Mr. Wagner’s birds are darned good at their jobs.
“That falcon  – that bird of prey – scares the heck out of all the other birds out there,” he said. “When (Mr. Wagner) brings the falcon out, those other birds disappear.”

Along with crows, other birds that frequently run afoul of flight operations include ducks and starlings. Because Ramstein’s two runways straddle a series of ponds, winged visitors often drop in for a water break. According to Sergeant Cooper, this presents a serious threat to planes landing at and leaving from Ramstein. When that occurs, the birds of prey are called in.
“It’s a temporary fix, but it gets an immediate reaction,” he said.

Mr. Wagner’s team of highly trained birds includes two peregrine falcons, a laenner falcon and a hawk. And Harald Theobald, an entymologist with the 735th Civil Engineer Squadron who often works with Mr. Wagner, likened the birds to highly trained athletes.

“When training them, (the birds) must get familiar with the hunter,” he said. “When they’re old enough, the hunter feeds them on the fist. They’re not allowed to eat wild animals – we don’t want them to get too fat.”

Mr. Theobald said the hawk is used mostly for short-range hunting and scaring – distances up to 200 feet. The falcons are another story, though. With vision that stretches to four miles and a top diving speed of 200 miles per hour, the falcons can scare pretty much anything, anywhere.

***image2***In addition to ducks, crows and starlings, the birds also chase away large German rabbits, whose propensity to burrow around runways is  bad  for planes hoping to avoid a bumpy taxiway. Mr. Wagner said that in the case of burrowing animals, ferrets can also be called in for varmint eradication duty.

Mr. Theobald stressed that, due to German law, the birds don’t actually kill anything – just  get them to move on for a while. This doesn’t make the birds any less fearsome though. As Mr. Wagner fed a dead baby chicken to his hungry hawk, who had just finished sweeping the area, one got the sense that the assembled humans were very glad to not be crows.