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MSU scientists studying airport landscaping

STARKVILLE — It has been two years since U.S. Airways flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River when a flock of Canada geese struck the engines just minutes after the plane took off.

Bird and airplane collisions cannot be completely avoided because the two share the same flying space. But scientists at Mississippi State University are looking to the ground, specifically to the mowed landscape surrounding runways and terminals, for ways to reduce wildlife hazards and possibly provide biofuel sources.

The research team includes scientists in the university’s Forest and Wildlife Research Center, the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Their focus is to find alternatives for the birds that seek the grass on airfields for food and shelter.

“More than 90 percent of damaging strikes to airplanes were caused by only 19 species of birds, according to the FAA,” said Jerry Belant, assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management. “Nine of these birds are associated with grasslands.”

Bird species involved in the most damaging strikes at U.S. airports use grasslands primarily for foraging, and those species generally prefer well-managed, frequently mown turf grass over mature grasslands, Belant said.

“Airports typically establish turf grasses and maintain the area with frequent mowing,” said Travis DeVault, USDA/APHIS research wildlife biologist. “Mowing these areas can be costly and may actually attract some bird species that pose strike risks.”

MSU scientists are experimenting with an alternative to turf grass. They planted 16 switchgrass and native warm-season grasses at the Golden Triangle Regional Airport and on Lowndes County properties owned by B. Bryan Farms.

The researchers will assess wildlife habitat, biomass production, economic benefit and aviation risk in this long-term experiment.

The different mowing regimes will simulate harvest for biofuel production and forage and also help the scientists determine the frequency of use by wildlife and the associated risk to aircraft.

While the research has just begun, it indicates that airports may need to change their landscape management practices around the runways.

“A grass height of 5 inches is less desirable for most ground-nesting birds,” Belant said.

The scientists also recommend reducing standing water to avoid water-loving bird species. Ten of the most hazardous bird species or species groups are strongly associated with water.


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