Sunday, April 26, 2009

It's a Plane, It's a Bird, It's a Turtle Strike

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

After reading an article in New York Post the other day, I got out my dictionaries and looked up the verb “to strike.”

According to my father’s old American College Dictionary, it means, among other things, “to come into forcible contact or collision with: the ship struck a rock.”

In contemporary parlance, I’ve discovered, this is what might be known as a rock strike.

Let me explain: For weeks now, I’ve been uneasily following the Post’s campaign to get the FAA to release statistics that would reveal the full extent of the threat that birds such as Canada Geese—the kamikazes that brought down Flight 1549—present to the world’s aircraft.

This campaign features a shot of a flying goose in the crosshairs, and the headline reads, “PLUCK 'EM.”

JFK is right next to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a haven for migrating waterfowl. If the paper succeeded in drumming up sufficient public outcry, I’d worry about their fate.

While I’m fully in sympathy with the desire to keep planes and their passengers safe, I am also—I’ll admit it—a bird lover. When I think about these unintended encounters between bird and aircraft, I am inclined to think in terms of a tragic accident, and one that is usually fatal only for the bird.

But from another perspective, that’s not how it is.

On Friday, the government finally released its bird-meets-plane statistics, which the Post duly summarized. In the lexicon of the FAA database, these are “wildlife strikes,” the civilian variant of a missile strike.

I suppose I can see the logic of using this terminology with birds. Like missiles, birds are smaller than the planes, collide with the aircraft, and explode on impact.

The FAA data names the 10 types of birds that most commonly assaulted planes at four local airports over the last nine years.

Herring gulls are at the top of the list, with 286 strikes; killdeer are at the bottom, with 48 strikes.

I was upset about the killdeer. I’m used to seeing them on the ground, crying piteously and dragging a supposedly injured wing, feinting desperately to lure the onlooker away from the nest.

When it comes to other kinds of wildlife, namely mammals and reptiles, the terminology of strikes gets even weirder, at least from my perspective.

Is this counterintuitive bureaucratic language genuinely indicative of an institutionalized point of view? Are we really so deluded about who is the aggressor when it comes to relations with other creatures in the world?

The Post provides a list of “four-legged animals that have hit airplanes at Kennedy, La Guardia, Newark, and Teterboro from 2000 to 2008.”

Over the course of nearly a decade, 39 black-tailed jackrabbits have rammed into planes. So have 15 opossums (specializing in night flights, no doubt), 12 woodchucks (when they’re not forecasting spring or biting the mayor), 3 muskrats, and—in what I suppose you’d call shelling—11 turtles.

I’m not sure how the FAA collected this data—perhaps it has a specialist in roadkill. But in its honor, I am posting a picture of a turtle after it conducted a strike on an automobile.

1 comment:

janet coleman said...

I can't stop laughing! I asked Marg, a Canadian, about the Canadian geese strikes and she says they are training them in Canada. It's part of their secret project for world domination.