Pilots can’t help watching airplanes in flight, other pilots land, and birds. Of course, birds are the real aviators. They come in many different configurations just like airplanes. Some are restricted to land operations only while others are amphibious. Those who can land on the water are able to do so with their “gear” extended or retracted! That unique capability is proof positive that birds far surpass man’s attempt to join them in the National- Airspace. Birds also seem to be able to navigate without the need of expensive avionics such as GPS, Flight Directors, Flight Management Systems, and Fuel Monitors.

I suppose we human pilots can boast of one superiority in that some of our airplanes have more than one engine. In our attempt to share the sky with our graceful  avian friends we surely must appear to them like a drunken Ox attempting a polka. Very much out of our element!


Unfortunately, airplanes and birds occasionally do not successfully share the airspace well. The bird or birds normally lose the battle but, not always. It’s interesting, have you ever noticed that airports, large or small, very often are located near a cemetery, a dump, or a body of water? Those locations, except for the cemetery, seem to be among the favorite haunts of birds along with the airports themselves. Certainly, from the bird’s perspective, we and our flying machines are infringing upon their territory  when operating in those areas.

I’ve not had any significant encounters with birds during flight. Now and then, there’s been a “near-miss”. Once or twice, a resounding thump which, when investigated upon landing, revealed a tell-tale bird smudge. One time there was a good dent in the left horizontal stabilizer de-icing boot. Going up and down the St Lawrence seaway, in the Twin-Otter days, at 3000’ and below, provided an excellent chance for bird watching and avoidance. One of the Otters did run into what must have been a large goose. In those days we usually left the sliding cockpit door open when it was hot. The poor bird entered through the thick left side windscreen shattering the glass but missing both pilots. As you might guess, this also shattered the goose some of which continued through the open door and joined our passengers. This could have been a disaster if it were not for pure luck. There were no injuries and the airplane landed safely. However, a significant cleanup of the airplane, the pilots, and most of the passengers was necessary.

So, what can we do as pilots to mitigate this potential hazard?  The birds are not going to go away, and I hope they don’t! That would probably mean we’d have more serious things to worry about. What we need to do is to be especially alert when we are flying in areas where we know conditions are likely to promote bird activity. Where the birds are likely to be. Also, consider the times of the year when migratory birds are moving in flocks.

Depending upon the type of bird and time of the year, birds of all species may be nesting with their movement being local or traveling. The traveling birds, such as waterfowl, can be found at medium to high altitudes. Sometimes they travel in large flocks, stopping for a few days to rest normally near a body of water. Starlings, black and much smaller than most waterfowl, also travel in large flocks. These migrating birds are not as predictable other than for the time of year spring and fall, when you are most likely to encounter them and the places they may be found.

Seagulls also migrate from the colder climates and may travel in flocks or individually. They, of course, are found along the seacoast as well as near inland freshwater lakes, ponds, and rivers. Seagulls fish when near the water and, also may be found miles inland rummaging around in and near dumps. Hence, the name “Dump Chicken”.

Hawks and vultures seem to be found anywhere from low level through all altitudes nearly up to the flight levels. Their haunts and travels are not limited to the countryside, they also occasionally make their homes in the city. They, in my experience, are much more likely to avoid a collision with you than most other bird species. However, they are good sized birds, and you’ll probably agree if you hit one (or, if it hits you)!

Let me confess that I am certainly not a bird expert. These suggestions are from my observations and experiences. The bottom line is to attempt the avoidance of a bird strike by being alert when you see birds and when the conditions suggest there are birds you have not yet seen. Birds are likely to be around airports. We frequent a local non towered airport with a paved runway. There is a high point in the middle of this runway which does not allow you to see the end from either direction. Except for the coldest time of the year,  birds will gather at either end of this  runway to warm their cold bird feet on the sun-warmed pavement. On your take-off roll, just as you crest the high spot, the startled birds, of which you may not have been aware, will join you in flight just as you lift off. This can be enough to startle the most experienced of human aviators!

Fly Smart and Be SAFE

Jim Leavitt