[IQP] It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a problem: An analysis of bird strike prevention methods at Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport

Sponsor: Copa Airlines Birdplaneman
Student Team: Brittany Rebello
Eric Cheng
Tom Hlavenka
Kyla Nichols
Abstract: This project addressed the problem of bird strikes at Panama’s Tocumen International Airport. Globally and in Panama, bird strikes threaten passenger safety, damage aircraft, and harm wildlife. Through data analysis, interviews, observations, benchmarking, and case study research, we found that black vultures are the biggest bird strike risk in Panama. In addition, bird strike risk increases during raptor migratory seasons. We also determined Tocumen Airport has many factors that attract birds to the property. Some of these factors are man-made, including trash in surrounding communities and new construction, while others are environmental causes, such as mangroves and tall grass. No single method can remove all the contributing factors, so the airport should consider using multiple bird strike prevention methods, such as landscape management and avian radar, as well as work together with the surrounding communities to reduce trash near the airport property.
Links: Final Report

Executive Summary

Bird strikes, or bird-aircraft collisions, are a major wildlife hazard to the aviation industry. As air traffic increases worldwide, strike numbers are increasing as well.1 Bird strikes put passenger safety at risk: strikes are capable of causing emergency landings and even tragic plane crashes. Bird strike damage is also expensive, costing the global airline industry over $1.2 billion dollars annually.

Bird strikes are almost routine at Panama’s Tocumen International Airport. Copa Airlines, the national airline of Panama, records an average of ten bird strikes a month, with 1 in 5 of them causing damage. The airport has several internal and external factors that attract birds including wetlands, tall grass, mangroves, and trash heaps. In addition, raptors fly over the airport during their migratory seasons in the spring and fall. “The airport,” said one airport inspector, “is a five star hotel for birds.” Panama’s Tocumen International Airport has experimented with firecrackers and noise guns as bird deterrents, but birds have acclimated to them and no longer respond to the deterrents.

Project Goal, Research Questions, and Methodology

The goal of our project was to develop an effective and feasible bird strike mitigation plan for Panama’s Tocumen International Airport. To accomplish our goal, we developed the following four research objectives:

  • Identify bird strike causes at Tocumen International Airport by analyzing patterns of reported bird strikes.
  • Assess the environmental factors and man-made factors contributing to bird strikes inside and adjacent to Tocumen International Airport
  • Examine the interests of the administrative stakeholders – Tocumen S.A., Copa Airlines, and the Autoridad Aeronautica Civil, regarding bird strikes.
  • Analyze the effectiveness, cost, and environmental sustainability of five options for bird strike reduction at Tocumen Airport: bird deterrents, minimizing trash in adjacent areas, landscape management, avian radar, and early warning systems.

Our team accomplished these objectives by analyzing bird strike report data from our sponsor, Copa Airlines. We also conducted interviews with Copa Airlines’ employees, the Tocumen Airport wildlife management team, and members of Panama’s Autoridad Aeronautica Civil. In addition, our team made observations of contributing factors to bird strikes while visiting Tocumen airport and its surrounding areas. We also made a benchmark visit to the José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador. This airport has similar contributing factors to Tocumen Airport and has successfully reduced bird strike numbers.


The following findings highlight an important concept: no single bird strike prevention method will completely eliminate bird strikes. It is important to choose different methods that complement each other because different methods would target different contributing factors of bird strikes. Both bird attractants on and off airport property, as well as migratory birds, should be considered when choosing methods of prevention. Bird strike risk factors fall under two categories: man-made and environmental. Man-made factors include new construction, fencing, and poor drainage, which are all directly on airport property. The trash in surrounding communities is a man-made attractant outside of the airport property. Environmental factors on airport property include wetlands, tall grass, and trees while factors off airport property include mangroves.

Objective 1: Bird Strike Causes

Because most birds fly below 3,500 feet and aircraft have less leeway to maneuver below that altitude, the majority of bird strikes occur during approach and landing, with about 1 bird strike in every 1000 landings. Because pilots have to land correctly on the runway, any maneuvering around birds is prohibited. During takeoffs, pilots have more airspace to maneuver and have options to increase the rate of climb and velocity of the plane. Once they reach 3,500 feet, bird strike risk is significantly lowered because birds do not fly above that altitude.

Of the many resident bird species at the airport, black vultures pose the biggest risk to aircraft and passenger safety because of their large numbers, large size, and tendency to circle in groups on thermal columns above the airport. Black vultures, which typically weigh between 1.6 and 2.8 kg (3.5-6.1 lb.), challenge impact standards for aircraft engines, which are designed to best withstand ingestions from up to a 1.81 kg (4 lb.) bird. At the airport, we observed vultures perching on fences and trees, as well as using thermal columns to gain altitude. Our interviewees also expressed that black vultures are the most prevalent birds around the airport.

Migratory raptors- mostly Swainson’s hawks and turkey vultures- appear to cause about 50% more bird strikes during the peak migratory months of October and April. During peak months of migration in Panama, April and October, the average number of bird strikes were 12.3 and 25.5 from 2013 to 2015. However, the average number of bird strikes during the other months were 8 strikes per month.

Objective 2: Internal and External Factors of Bird Strikes

Compared to external factors, the airport can more easily control environmental factors on their property that attract birds, such as wetlands, tall grass, and trees, as well as manmade factors such as fencing, new construction, and poor drainage. Wetlands and tall grass provide birds with food and nesting while trees and fencing provide roosting and perching locations for the birds. The new construction creates thermals that raptors use to fly. Poor drainage creates standing water that also attracts birds. The airport has the ability to make airport land less desirable by mitigating contributing factors of bird strikes, causing birds to move to other locations.

Bird attractions outside of Tocumen International Airport that are harder to manage include mangroves, an environmental factor, and trash, a man-made factor. Many resident bird species nest, roost, and feed within the trees of the mangrove forests. Black vultures fly across airways when scavenging for food within the trash heaps in the neighborhoods surrounding the airport.

Objective 3: Stakeholder Relationships

Copa Airlines and the AAC have communicated their need for an effective bird strike mitigation strategy to Tocumen S.A., but Tocumen does not fully understand this need. Members of the Panama Audubon Society, DeTect, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have made several presentations and suggestions for Tocumen S.A. regarding bird strike prevention, but none have been implemented. Copa Airlines wants Tocumen Airport to implement an effective bird strike mitigation method because they are concerned about passenger safety and damage to aircraft. Tocumen S.A. desires concrete evidence of a proven bird strike mitigation solution before they are willing to invest. The AAC is only a regulatory agency, so they cannot make or enforce laws.

Objective 4: Bird Strike Solutions

Bird deterrents are only a temporary bird strike prevention method because birds become acclimated to them. Tocumen Airport uses two methods of bird deterrents – firecrackers and noise guns – which have had minimal effect. Bird deterrents are not very effective, low cost, and have minimal effect on the environment. The cheapest way to move birds is to scare them using methods such as lasers, and noise deterrents, but they will only move for a short time. Birds may eventually acclimate to these methods.

Trash cleanup in the surrounding neighborhoods may be an effective and low cost solution to bird strikes because it will reduce the presence of vultures on and near the airport property. Trash cleanup may be moderately effective, is low cost, and beneficial to the environment. The neighborhoods near the airport have exposed heaps of trash because of unreliable garbage pickup. Community members leave trash in piles on the side of major roads and bus stops. Pilots and the wildlife control team at Tocumen believe that trash attracts black vultures to areas near flight paths, but very little data supports this.

Landscape Management, such as nets/grid lines or non-toxic irritant, is an effective option for Tocumen Airport because of its potential to reduce the number of birds on the property. Landscape management is very effective, has a moderate cost, and has a moderate negative effect on the environment. Several options exist for making wetlands inhospitable to birds, but many of these would disturb the environment. Both the grid line system and Methyl Anthranilate (MA) are designed to deter birds and have minimal effect on the surrounding environment. Overhead grid line systems are made of a fine wire stretched across attractants such as grassy areas or standing water. MA is a non-toxic, U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved bird irritant that would deter birds from landing in targeted grass or water areas to feed. Non-toxic irritant is a good option because birds do not become used to it.

Avian radar and early warning systems are high cost but effective at warning airports about periods of high bird strike risk, such as migration, and allow the study of bird behavior patterns, making it an effective option for Tocumen. Avian radar and early warning systems are very effective, high cost, and have no effect on the environment. Avian radar provides real-time information on where birds are around the airport property. It is also effective in establishing bird behavior patterns. Early warning systems will monitor a specific space in the sky to measure how many birds fly through it and which direction they are flying.


For Tocumen Airport

Keep a logbook of the airport conditions each day such as grass height, weather conditions, temperature, and number of birds present to help identify bird strike causes. In Copa Airlines’ reported bird strike data, as well as the data provided by the airport, information on what may have caused the bird strikes is missing. A logbook of possible bird attractants may provide insights to bird strike occurrences with previously unknown reasons.

Implement multiple bird strike prevention methods to best mitigate the risk of bird strikes at the airport because no single method will completely prevent the risk of bird strikes. The airport must realize that one bird strike prevention method will not completely solve the problem. Many unique factors attract birds to the airport, which all need to be addressed to mitigate the bird strike risk. Options that complement each other would need to take into account both internal and external bird attractants, as well as migratory birds.

Test different low cost, but effective options of landscape management: overhead nets/grid lines, Methyl Anthranilate, and drainage canal repairs. Landscape management is a viable option for Tocumen Airport because it would reduce the number of birds present on the property. Overhead Grid lines and the irritant Methyl Anthranilate (MA) would deter birds from standing water in the airport without harming any land. Since the drainage canal is not actually draining anymore, repairing it would remove standing water where food is available for birds.

Implement avian radar to provide data for tracking and managing bird threats up to a 10 km radius around the airport. Radar can monitor birds 24 hours a day to provide data on bird patterns and behaviors. This allows it to assess bird strike threats from both resident and migratory birds. Radar is capable of tracking all of the present bird hazards. The radar can store data on bird movements that can later be analyzed by bird experts to better understand the migrations in Panama, which will provide long term benefits for the airport. This is the only prevention method that can be used to mitigate the threat from both resident and migratory birds.

Study the trash problem in the communities surrounding the airport to find a solution that benefits the community, airport, and government. All the residents of the communities surrounding the airport that we spoke with had a problem with the excess trash, telling us that it is a cultural issue that will not be simple to solve. Even though finding a solution to this problem would be beneficial to both, the airport and the community have not reached out to each other on this matter. Since this problem is a wide reaching cultural issue, we suggest that a team research and analyze possible solutions to find the best one.

For Copa Airlines

Improve Copa Airlines’ bird strike reporting system: create a uniform database to efficiently store bird strike report data including costs, damages from the bird strikes, and species of birds. While analyzing Copa’s bird strike reports, we realized the data lacked information. Items were often left out of reports, and we had to search through other databases to find the damages and costs associated with bird strikes. Species of birds struck are also not recorded anywhere. This results in a lack of evidence for what birds cause the most strikes at Tocumen