Planes hit birds more than you’d think. How safe are you when flying?


Pilots and air safety officials started paying close attention to airplanes that strike wildlife in 2009 after a US Airways jet with 155 people on board hit a flock of Canada geese and lost power as it climbed out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

In what came to be called the “Miracle on the Hudson,” pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger glided the aircraft into the Hudson River and everyone on board survived.

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The Federal Aviation Administration had been collecting data on wildlife strikes since 1990 and U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologists had been involved since 1995. But after that near disaster in New York in 2009, data began to pour in about animal strikes, said Michael Begier, national coordinator for the USDA’s Airport Wildlife Hazards Program.

Reports jumped immediately in 2009, Begier said, and continued to rise every year until a drop in air travel in 2020 during the pandemic. Much of the increase came from better reporting by pilots, tower personnel, mechanics and others, he said. At the same time, according to a report Begier co-authored, $400 million in federal airport improvement money poured in between 2009 and 2021 to help airports assess wildlife dangers, plan to mitigate them and build better perimeter fences.

By 2015, as wildlife biologists set up programs to harass, move or remove larger species that posed the most danger, reports of strikes causing substantial damage or destroying aircraft dropped significantly. No aircraft has been reported destroyed in an incident at a U.S. passenger airport since 2014, according to the FAA data.

What’s the risk for planes at your closest airport?

Enter an airport code or name to see its history of collisions with birds and other creatures. 

Which airports have the most wildlife strikes?

Denver International Airport opened in 1995 in the continent’s central flyway for migrating birds, according to online news site Denverite. The airport has the most reports in the wildlife strike database with just over 9,000 through the end of 2022. Only 42 of those strikes caused significant damage to the aircraft, and no aircraft have been destroyed. The Horned Lark is the most commonly hit species in Denver, with more than 2,650 strike reports in the database.

Rounding out the top 10 are many of the nation’s largest and busiest airports. All of those airports have active wildlife management programs, Begier said, which tend to encourage more reporting of wildlife strikes and reduce the number of strikes that cause damage.

Which animals cause the most damage?

The FAA tracks collisions in midair and on runways. The latter can be especially risky.

White-tailed deer have destroyed 26 aircraft in collisions since 1990, more than any other species of bird, mammal, or reptile. About 30% of the 1,230 collisions with white-tailed deer resulted in either substantial damage or destruction of the aircraft.

Most of those collisions occurred at smaller general-aviation airports, which mostly serve private aircraft, said Richard Dolbeer, science adviser to the USDA’s Airport Wildlife Hazards Program. That’s because passenger airports started beefing up perimeter fencing after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, keeping out deer at the same time they intended to fence out terrorists.

Unsurprisingly, the largest birds and mammals cause the most damage to aircraft. Using the wildlife strike database, Dolbeer calculated that for every 100-gram increase in animal weight, the likelihood of damage increases by 1.2%. Birds that flock, such as gulls and Canada geese, also tend to do more damage, Dolbeer said, adding the mass of a group.

Do aircraft hit bald eagles?

Dolbeer notes that as populations of bald eagles have rebounded since 1990, more of the birds have been struck by aircraft. That’s a troubling trend, he said, because the mass of an eagle – about 10 pounds – exceeds the safety certification standards for all aircraft engines.

In 2021, a jet with 102 passengers had to abort takeoff at Atlantic City International Airport when an eagle went through an engine, causing a fire and substantial damage, Dolbeer noted in a report last year. Nearly half of all civil aircraft that hit eagles since 1990 suffered damage or flight problems, he found.

Still, eagle strikes remain relatively rare, just a few dozen each year in recent years out of thousands of wildlife strikes.

Protections and public interest make it difficult to find solutions to move eagles away from airports, Begier said. The birds like wide open spaces near water and will land on runways to feed on fish because they can see predators coming from a long way off. Among the tactics biologists use to shoo eagles from airports are covering nearby open drainage ponds with netting and, after securing federal permits, removing nests once eggs have hatched and the eagles have fledged, he said.

“We’re really just trying to deconflict the situation,” Begier told USA TODAY. “We don’t want the eagles at the airport because chances are they’re going to eventually get struck.” 

What else can be done to prevent wildlife strikes?

Since the Miracle on the Hudson in 2009, the FAA has put $30 million into research into radar and scanner systems to help detect birds in the path of aircraft, according to Begier and Dolbeer, along with other ideas that could help future pilots avoid collisions with wildlife. The radar systems are not widely in use yet, confined mainly to military airfields. 

There’s also been research into modifying lights on aircraft that would help birds detect oncoming planes and avoid them, they said, and into using drones to detect, monitor and harass hazardous wildlife. 

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