"Bird scarers" at Hawaii airport help prevent catastrophe

HONOLULU - At Honolulu International Airport, planes land or take off every few minutes and at the adjoining military airbase, fighter jets add to the mix.

But in this tropical paradise, there is a problem: birds. Lots of birds. And in rare cases birds ingested into jet engines can result in disaster. Worldwide more than 400 people have died in crashes caused by birds since 2003.

There are dozens of bird-plane collisions each year at Honolulu, and the number might be significantly higher without "the bird scarers."

Darrin Phelps leads a team of six here working to minimize bird strikes. They use an array of tricks from pyrotechnic devices known as shellcrackers to high-powered lasers, to decoys that draw birds away from runways.

"You've got pretty much the perfect environment," said Phelps, explaining why birds seem to love airports. "You've got a lot of open grass areas surrounded with trees and very little human activity."

Phelps team constantly adjusts their tactics because birds figure them out. He says birds are not stupid.

"They learn to avoid our trucks at certain times and certain areas," he said.

Phelps said the birds even know his truck because it's white, not yellow.

At the end of a major runway here is a small island, home to about 500 egrets that return each day at sunset.

"Through our years of work and persistence, we've basically got them to avoid the airfield for the most part," Phelps said.

They used to fly over the runway. Now most of them take this safer path home.

Remy Moranha says his work is about saving lives.

"If a bird hits a plane, it could take it down," he said. "And that's what, 300-plus lives?"

And that is no small victory for the bird scarers of Honolulu.