It has never happened, but suppose that one day a passenger airliner carrying your loved one hits a Canada goose and crashes at a Toronto airport. Should you then decide to sue somebody, have your solicitor contact me. I believe I could show that Transport Canada neglected to employ its own knowledge of how to best reduce whatever risks birds pose to aircraft at our airports. Instead of using existing strategies to protect aircraft from birds, the department of transport is busy studying "growth projections" for the GTA goose population. Making such forecasts is, of course, impossible. Wild animal population growth curves don't grow endlessly, and limiting factors in population growth change unpredictably. Many geese are not year-round residents. If it's estimated that there will be too many birds, something will be done. But how many are too many?
Already, there's talk of culling. But unless it's done on a massive scale aimed at wiping out the Canada goose, culling will do nothing so long as birds visit airports, and it does not address other bird species.
Taxpayers have already funded experimental use of a technique far more efficient than any cull to reduce the risk of plane-bird collisions. Results are contained in a 2001 report, Efficacy Of The Suppression And Conditioning Apparatus And The Consequent Behaviour Modification In Birds, written by Rhonda Millikin.
This new, high-tech, environmentally friendly, non-lethal approach was tested to see if it could teach birds to avoid airports. It could be adapted for use anywhere wildlife isn't wanted. It worked, spectacularly. And Transport Canada has been ignoring it ever since.
The study looked at the work of a Vancouver-based inventor and former commercial pilot, Hans Dysarsz, whose device is based on Pavlov's concept of the conditioned reflex. When I first talked to Dysarsz over a year ago, he was extremely frustrated. Transport Canada's aerodrome safety branch had provided a $287,000 grant for the study, plus active support. The study was an enormous success. But then - nothing.
Put simply, loudspeakers focused aircraft engine noises at birds and then fired water under high pressure in their direction. The noise was no big deal to the birds, but they hated the water, although even the few that were hit were quite unharmed. Depending on the species, the birds soon (in the case of crows, very soon) or eventually (in the case of geese, after several applications) learned that when they heard the noise the water was about to come. The birds fled, and eventually the sound alone deterred them.
This method also seems to work for some mammals (deer, black bears, possibly moose) and can be connected to detection devices that make it automatic. If an animal of a certain size enters the restricted area, the noise is activated, followed by the water.
But now we learn that $41,000 has been allocated merely to study the Canada goose "problem" in the GTA. Transport Canada's François Asselin confirms that the department is working on a report determining numbers and risks, and a second one assessing the remedies, of which culling is one.
Trained sheepdogs, trained falcons, the oiling of eggs, the use of plywood cutouts, special laser devices, pyrotechnics, noise deterrents, goose repellent, helium balloons, habitat modification and change of ground cover (geese graze on tender grass) are all non-lethal methods with varying degrees of success and various price tags. The trick is to mix and blend methods to suit local circumstances. Lethal culling satisfies blood lust, but only leaves room for more geese.
So why not simply prevent them from being around airports? So long as temperatures are above the freezing point, the water cannon aversion process appears to work better than any other method, and once birds are conditioned the water isn't used anyway.
I can think of no real stumbling block to further testing, refinement and application of this system except its price. Airports may not want to foot the bill for a product that most benefits not them but insurers and airlines - the companies that pay the financial costs of crashes. But a minor user tax (a fraction of recent anti-terrorism airport taxes) would cover all the costs. If the problem is real, the best solution to date needs to be implemented, and one truly serious accident avoided is surely worth an extra quarter or two for an airplane ticket.
Barry Kent MacKay is a naturalist, Canadian rep of the Animal Protection Institute and a director of Zoocheck Canada and the Animal Alliance.