A-Hunting They Will Go

The rabbit and vulture problem at MIA hits its Malthusian limit

Just when you thought airports couldn't get any more dangerous -- all the metal detectors breached, all the surveillance cameras broken, suitcases rigged with C-4 -- even your mild-mannered fellow passengers readying their nail clippers for God-knows-what ... along came the bunny rabbits. Well, black-tailed jackrabbits to be exact.

As of eight months ago, Miami International Airport was put on notice by the Federal Aviation Administration: Deal with the jackrabbits proliferating around your airfields or we'll send Elmer Fudd after you. Airport officials estimate that there could be as many as 500 jackrabbits burrowing along the runways and feeding off the rough brush that seems to grow only in airports and abandoned sandlots. Although they originated in the Southwest, no one is sure when these rabbits came to MIA. But they've become a problem, in part because the airport is adding a fourth runway and two new "taxiways," thereby taking away a huge portion of their remaining habitat; in part because these bunnies are no mere bunnies: They can stretch three feet in length when in full stride, and would not take kindly to being anybody's bitch (jackrabbits can bite your finger off).

But actually, the rabbits aren't the real threat. They're what Larry Brashears, the district supervisor for wildlife services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Wildlife in South Florida, calls a "secondary hazard." The primary threat, say airport officials, are the turkey buzzards, a.k.a. vultures, who hover over the airport grounds waiting for the Boeing 757s to squash our little friends into furry patties, so they can pick at the simmering carcasses on the subtropic tarmac. Turkey buzzards are slow, ugly -- and most important, mammoth creatures. With a wingspan of six feet, these bald-headed big boys pack enough punch to destroy an airplane engine if sucked into the rumbling turbine at just the right takeoff angle. What's more, they congregate by the dozens. Just go to the county courthouse to see.

The newest security threat at Miami International Airport has four legs and big ears
Steve Satterwhite
The newest security threat at Miami International Airport has four legs and big ears

Between 1982 and 2001, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board reported 103 incidents involving airplanes and birds across the country. There were eleven in Florida alone, where gulls, wading birds like pelicans and herons, and, of course, turkey buzzards are in abundance. Some of the reports, which can be found online, are enough to make you think about packing your own BB gun next time you head for MIA (though you'd never get a chance to use it). "Bird strikes," as they're known in NTSB-lingo, caused electricity outages, "severe vertical vibrations," engines to "flame" out, and ruptured fuel lines. Several reports talked of smashed windshields and splattered birdbrains. One stated that a bird "penetrated the canopy and struck the pilot's face." (That plane had to land in a hayfield and flipped over in the process. Luckily, the pilot was unhurt, except from all the feathers ...)

Over the years ducks, geese, hawks, and crows have also caused major malfunctions, deviations, and emergency landings for mostly small planes, as well as numerous injuries, and twelve recorded deaths nationwide. And Brashears says the official statistics grossly underestimate the actual number of "bird strikes," which happen several times a day in Florida: "Most of the strikes are not noticed or reported," he explains. "You hear a 'thud,' and then they find a bird laying in the grass." The problem intensifies during the winter when birds head south for "the same reasons that people do." MIA officials say they've had two nonfatal (for humans) incidents already this year and average "a dozen" annually.

To deal with these feathered guys, Brashears has four or five (it varies) part-time "birdmen" -- the name given to Homestead Air Force Base's USDA bird-chasers -- roaming the state's airfields and bird-flocking areas near the "danger zones," such as the Medley landfill by MIA. These birdmen carry "launchers" -- handguns resembling starting pistols. When the birds congregate, or if airplanes are approaching or preparing for takeoff, birdmen shoot "bird-bombs," loud, M-80-like firecrackers that soar a hundred feet into the air and then explode. Problem is, the pesky birds soon get used to the bombs, and then the birdmen have to move to "screamers," which send up a loud piercing whistle. When the birds get used to those, Brashears's raiders break out the real deal. "We save a lot of birds by having to shoot a few," Brashears says with a wisp of sadness. After a couple hit the ground, the rest get the message and take off, he says.

Airport officials say they have a birdman who works for the county on site from dawn to dusk who picks up dead rabbits and regularly shoots firecrackers in the air to frighten the turkey buzzards away. "The problem is they're not that scared because they're already in the air," says Bruce Drum, the assistant director of operations at MIA. Officials also say they don't shoot birds, making Brashears's alternative method moot. So short of sending an Apache helicopter to deal with the problem, the airport was forced to take on the "secondary hazard," the Southwest jackrabbits.

The problem is a strange one considering that black-tailed jackrabbits come from Texas and points west -- Arizona, New Mexico. They're not known to migrate or change habitat, so it's an open case how they actually got here. MIA's Drum says "urban legend" has it that when MIA was known as Pan Am Field early last century, there was a jackrabbit farm on the property that greyhound trainers used to tune up their racing dogs. But Baird Thompson, a marketer for several racetracks in Florida and Texas, who's been affiliated with dog racing for twenty years, dismisses this theory. Thompson says using live animals to train the dogs was prohibited even before the sport came to Florida early in the last century. Besides, no one would risk using a disease-and-parasite-ridden rabbit to train a $10,000 dog. And, he adds, "Who could ever make rabbits run in circles?"

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