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Close Encounters Of The Avian Kind

Letter From New York


Several dozen birds careen through the salty air as wildlife biologist Steven D. Garber seeks his quarry. A black-and-white killdeer darts to his left near an orange-billed Forster's tern. Then, a graceful white bird catches his attention. "Snowy egret," he says.

But Garber's real quarry is the laughing gull, a black-headed seabird whose name comes from a shriek that seems part bird, part hyena. It's as if the Riddler had been reincarnated as a seagull--and sent aloft to plague airlines. Laughing gulls are among the 300 varieties of birds that make their homes--at least during part of the year--in the marshlands of Jamaica Bay, also the site of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Garber is the airport's ecosystem manager. And his mission is one of the more unusual in the transportation industry: to relocate an unruly colony of laughing gulls that has picked this site, hard by the runways, for its summer home.

SAFE HARBOR. It's not an easy job, not even for the guy who wrote the book on urban ecosystems, Urban Naturalist. JFK, after all, must surely be the urban ecosystem to beat all urban ecosystems, a realm that pits not only Boeing 747s against laughing gulls but animal-rights activists against a special U.S. Agriculture Dept. avian hit squad. But it is a critical job. "One bird can bring a plane down," explains Garber, a reserved, soft-spoken man who attempts to mediate the demands of environmentalists, airport officials, and airlines.

The problem is, laughing gulls regard Kennedy as the perfect summer home. (They winter in Venezuela.) JFK has all the amenities. A rich estuary serves up a feast with every tide. Combined with the sewage runoff from New York City, the nutrients in Jamaica Bay sustain an abundant food supply. And except for those crazy jumbo jets, it's a fairly safe place. Islands in the bay provide nesting sanctuaries, flooding twice a day with the tides so that they are off-limits to raccoons, rats, and mice that otherwise would eat the laughing gulls' eggs and chicks. Meanwhile, competing gull species need drier terrain.

Although the laughing gulls summer mostly in the Southeastern states, a century ago they were found in abundance in New York, also. But their flocks were slaughtered for their feathers, and a combination of pollution and development eliminated many summer nesting places. Laughing gulls began returning to New York State in numbers in the late 1970s, establishing JFK as their only colony in the state, a fact that helps their cause to no end with animal-rights groups.

But there are equally compelling arguments for a birdless airport environment. As recently as June, jet engines on an Air France Concorde caught fire when the plane collided with several Canada geese while landing. No one was hurt, but the price tag was steep: $6 million. Transportation officials fear the laughing gulls, now the most numerous of Kennedy's species, may one day cause a jetliner crash. In 1975, the pilot of a DC-10 aborted a takeoff at JFK after gulls were sucked into the plane's engines. Everyone managed to get off, but the aircraft was ruined by a fire that started in the brakes.

SHOOTING SPREE. Since the 1970s, JFK's colony has grown to more than 16,000 gulls that congregate on the marshland at the end of a busy runway from May to August--the peak summer air-travel season. In 1991, airport officials summoned the Agriculture Dept. SWAT team. At least 20,000 gulls were shot before the Fund for Animals, an animal-rights group based in New York, filed two lawsuits that culminated in the hiring of a wildlife biologist to help control the laughing gulls and other birds. Shooting would be a last resort.

Airport directors have "greatly exaggerated the threat of laughing gulls," complains animal-rights activist D.J. Schubert. Hotly contesting the notion that one bird can bring down a plane, Schubert notes that JFK recorded 147 bird-to-airplane collisions at Kennedy last year, resulting in little more than dented metal and a feathery mess. The mishaps are insignificant when measured against the 350,000 takeoffs and landings each year, Schubert says.

Perhaps, but the airport is still taking all precautions. These days, Garber sloshes through the marshes, looking for clues about laughing gull behavior that could help him figure out how to round up thousands of the itinerant creatures and persuade them to summer elsewhere. How does one nonviolently repel a seabird that routinely puts up with the sound of roaring jetliners? Garber's latest experiments involve setting off fireworks from what looks like a small cannon in order to shoo the birds off the runway. He also has tried broadcasting recordings of the gulls' distress calls to lure them elsewhere, with some success.

TRIAL AND ERROR. His approach has won some acceptance among the animal-rights activists, even those who oppose relocation. "He's a good scientist," says Schubert. "He knows what he's doing."

Right now, it's trial and error, and it may turn out that nothing will work. Birds have been pushed out of selected spots before, but they have never been lured to a specific location. Garber hopes that establishing enough of the birds at some new site will draw their brethren thither. But if he does get the colony to summer elsewhere, who knows what other birds might move in? "There are still questions that remain to be answered," Garber acknowledges as he looks off into New York's smoggy skyline, 22 miles to the west. Birds of a feather may flock together, but Garber is leaving nothing to chance.CHRISTINA DEL VALLE

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