Gulls, cormorants and pelicans have been flocking to a spot near the end of Oakland International Airport's runway recently, prompting the unusual decision to shoot dozens of the birds in the name of passenger safety.
About 60 dead and injured birds have been found washed up on the Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline between the airport and San Leandro's Marina Park, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.
"Our airport poses some unique challenges geographically," Oakland airport spokesman Robert Bernardo said.
The airport sits adjacent to the Bay, a golf course and protected wetlands.
Oakland International Airport has both a full-time wildlife biologist and a wildlife specialist, contracted through the United States
Department of Agriculture, said Carol Bannerman, a spokeswoman for USDA wildlife services.
The biologist has been at the airport for eight years, Bannerman said. He and the wildlife specialist generally try to simply scare birds away from the runways, sometimes using pyrotechnics.
However, something in the water at the end of the runway, likely a food source, was drawing large gatherings of birds that refused to leave, Bannerman said.
"In the time he's been there, he's never seen the large flocks of birds with such persistence," Bannerman said of the biologist. "In his professional opinion, it was a significant danger to the aircraft and their passengers."
She mentioned the near-tragedy in January 2009 dubbed the "miracle on the Hudson," in which a US Airways flight departing from New York City struck a flock of birds and landed in the Hudson River.
Bannerman said a removal this large and the size of the flocks is unlike anything Oakland's airport has experienced in the past.
At one point, 2,000 double-crested cormorants were feeding in the water at the end of the runway on the approach, Bannerman said. "It's a
beautiful sight, unless you're in an airplane that is landing through the flock."
The birds, which also included seagulls and brown pelicans, had not responded to efforts to scare them away, Bannerman said.
"At Oakland, like every other airport, more than 90 percent of the birds we encounter are dispersed, or chased away," she said. Biologists use propane cannons to make booming sounds on the runway, or a special type of firework that makes noise when you shoot it up in the air.
Bannerman emphasized that wildlife biologists rarely make the decision to kill birds, and do so only for passenger safety. "The people who work at airports, who work in this field, they admire wildlife," she said.
Oakland International Airport holds a standing federal permit for bird removal in such situations. Lt. Sheree Christensen of the California Department of Fish and Game said the airport's permit appears to be in order.
Fish and game agents received reports of the dead and injured birds i December when someone walking along a nearby trail called East Bay Regional Park police.
"At first we thought we had a poaching situation," Christensen said.
Christensen said her office is still receiving unconfirmed reports from boaters of more birds floating in the Bay. The number of birds shot is
much larger than anything else she's seen from the airport.
"Usually they're just shooting a couple of birds and they retrieve them," she said. "I've never seen something like this."
Birds cause 97 percent of wildlife-related plane crashes, according to USDA Wildlife Services. Wildlife strikes cause $625 million in
damage each year to civil aircraft and 550,000 hours of flight delays.