U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version



Ibis (2013), 155, 189–193


Management of modern airports is a task beset by conflicting priorities. Airports are vital to the global market economy, but impose costly environmental disturbances including habitat loss, noise, reduced air quality, erosion, introduction of invasive organisms, and polluted storm-water runoff (Blackwell et al. 2009). Airport environments also attract some wildlife hazardous to aviation safety, namely species involved in wildlife-aircraft collisions or ‘strikes’ (ICAO 2001, Blackwell et al. 2009, DeVault et al. 2011). Since 1912 at least 276 human lives have been lost due to bird strikes (Thorpe 2010), and from 1990 to 2010, more than 106 000 bird strikes involving civil aircraft were reported to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA; http://wildlife-mitigation. tc.faa.gov/wildlife/). Dolbeer (2006) reported that for strikes resulting in substantial aircraft damage (ICAO 1989), 66% occurred below 152 m altitude and within 1.5 km of a runway for airports servicing piston-powered aircraft only, and within 3 km of a runway for airports servicing turbine-powered aircraft (FAA 2009). Consequently, aviation authorities prioritize human safety over wildlife conservation in management of airport habitats (ICAO 2001, FAA 2009).

Despite these problems, airports have been proposed as candidates for biodiversity conservation (Kelly & Allan 2006, Blackwell et al. 2009). For example, Kutschbach- Brohl et al. (2010) report that airport grasslands can provide habitat for a range of arthropod communities (e.g. Lepidoptera), and suggest the possibility of conserving these communities while minimizing provision of prey resources to birds recognized as hazardous to aviation. Moreover, declines in grassland bird populations in Europe and North America due to agricultural intensification and development have focused attention on enhancing quality and quantity of remnant grasslands (Herkert 1994, Vickery et al. 2004), including airport grasslands. In North America, airport properties have been identified as key areas of remnant grasslands important to obligate grassland bird species; species that both nest and forage in grasslands (Vickery et al. 1994, Askins et al. 2007).

Airport properties in the contiguous USA include > 330 000 ha of grassland, mostly annually mown areas, constituting 39–50% of airport property (DeVault et al. 2012). However, there is little research specific to airport environments that considers food resources for birds (Bernhardt et al. 2010, Kutschbach-Brohl et al. 2010), how birds perceive and react to predation risk (Baker & Brooks 1981) or disturbance (Kershner & Bollinger 1996), and no adequate assessment of how grassland management might affect strike risk (Blackwell et al. 2009, Martin et al. 2011).

In this context, we contend that promoting conservation of obligate grassland birds and managing to reduce bird hazards to aviation safety combines two potentially conflicting objectives in a single management framework. Ecologically based guidance to solve this potential conflict is limited, if not oversimplified. Here, we question the potential use of airports to conserve grassland birds, and assess the challenges in managing airport grasslands in light of current ecological and behavioral frameworks. We consider conditions for conservation of obligate grassland birds on airports, and evidence on the use of airports by frequently struck, grassland birds (both obligate and facultative). We also provide a framework to manage grassland birds at airports, given current information and uncertainty. Because of the availability of strike data via the FAA, our focus is on North America. However, problems associated with bird use of airport grasslands are international (ICAO 2001). Therefore, our ultimate purpose is better to inform current management, but also identify research gaps and establish specific predictions that will guide future studies on the ecological basis of use of airport grasslands by birds.