The birds and wildlife on or near the flightline at March Air Reserve Base are being trained that the grass may be greener on the other side – of the fence line. The trainer is a seven-year-old Border Collie named Sonic Boom, who with her handler Heather Barker, a trained biologist/ecologist, work for Birdstrike Control Program to reduce or eliminate wildlife hazards at and near our airfield.
For the last month, Sonic’s job has been to harass the wildlife here so they learn that being near March Field is not a comfortable place to be. Barker’s job is to collect and record data in order to track local wildlife trends, weather patterns, ecological issues, etc. and make recommendations. Together they try to teach birds and other wildlife to stay away and find a more serene place to hang out.
Every weekday at 6:45 a.m. Barker, who has a degree in Wildlife Management and Fisheries, turns on her two-way radio and by 7 a.m., she and Sonic arrive at base operations to pick up a daily flight schedule. This helps Barker determine when she needs to have Sonic at work on the field. Chasing birds and other wildlife can’t be done when a flight is arriving or departing because of the chances of the wildlife flying or crossing into the flight path, Barker said.
“Sometimes I’ll get a call that there are birds in the area but there are no scheduled flights. You can’t have a birdstrike risk unless you have a plane and birds.”
Armed with the daily schedule and her radio, Barker and Sonic work until sunset each weekday beginning with a three-hour sweep of the flightline and its perimeter, stopping periodically to let Sonic harass the birds Barker spots. Their goal is to make sure there are no hazards present and make the airfield safe before any flights arrive or depart, Barker said.
She provided the following analogy of Sonic’s work with the birds to explain how the birds may feel about March and Sonic.
“You can choose to live in a shack or a mansion. If you live in the mansion (March Field) and an ax murderer (Sonic Boom) lives near the mansion, you may occasionally check it out. But, if the ax murderer still lives there you may decide the shack is a better place to live.”
Although Sonic never gets close enough to actually catch the wildlife, to them she is still a huge threat and they remember that after a few scares, Barker said.
“She probably wouldn’t know what to do with them if she did catch them,” Barker said. “For her, it’s the thrill of the chase. She doesn’t run for treats or praise, but because she loves it!”
Throughout the day, Barker is keenly aware of her radio, listening for her call sign, “Wildlife niner niner,” which she created to be longer than usual so she can easily distinguish it when a call comes across. With her busy schedule, she needs to be able to subconsciously be aware of her radio calls, she said.
When she does respond to a call, Barker drives to the problem area, lets Sonic out of the vehicle and faces the direction in which the wildlife or birds are located. Then with a shout of “Go get ‘em!” or “Run, Border Collie! Run, run, run!” she sets Sonic into motion doing what the dog loves to do — run. Sonic knows to run in the direction Barker is facing. As the birds take to flight, Sonic continues the chase until Barker calls her back by shouting “That’ll do!” or blowing a specific sound from a Sheppard’s whistle.
After three years with the company, Barker and Sonic work well together. Before arriving at March, they protected the airfield at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. and a private Houston, Texas airfield before that.
Although they are still learning the environment, wildlife and migration patterns in the southern California area, Barker and Sonic know how hot the summer months can be. Sonic took full advantage of the water holes left over from the recent, heavy rainstorm, by jumping into a few on her way to some birds this week. Once in, she decided to let the birds have a break while she took one.
Once cooled off, it was back to work for Sonic Boom, chasing a Great Egret away from a nearby water hole and away from the flight path. According to Barker, there are large waterfowl birds, like the Great Egret, Great Blue Heron and Cormorant that transit the March airspace daily. One of those birds coming in contact with one of our jet engines would cause damage equivalent to dropping a large elephant onto your car from 15 feet above it.
Territorial raptors, like the hawks, are left alone.
“They learn to stay out of the flight path and teach their young the same,” Baker said. “They also keep smaller birds out of the territory.”
The biggest problem Baker sees here is there is not enough grass. More grass would be ideal, she said. It would eliminate most of the flocking birds, like finches and larks.
Another problem Baker said is coyotes, who she believes use the runway as a transit area to get from one side of the highway to the other, but don’t hunt on base. Although she doesn’t know of one ever being struck here, she feels the use of daily predator harassment to push them and other wildlife out is important.
Every airport must have a wildlife management program, said Lt. Col. Mark Wittemann, 452d Air Mobility Wing flight safety officer.
“Wildlife biologists, who are trained in wildlife management, can see all the reactions of the smallest changes we might be making,” Wittemann said. “It’s nice to have an over-arching view of the entire environment; plants, animals, bugs, water management seasonally. She’s in touch with other biologists to share and understand patterns happening in California,” he said.
Those patterns change based on the season, Baker said. Bad weather brings more birds to the ground seeking shelter and fall and spring migration shows an increase in bird activity.
“Murmuration is when a flock of birds moves as one unit,” Baker said. “Watching Sonic go after a flock of birds is like watching a shark working a school of fish.”
When not patrolling the airfield, Baker is meeting with pilots, maintenance, safety, contracting, civil engineers, the Aero Club staff, or anyone else concerned with flight safety. Her boss calls her a Border Collie because of her high energy, she said.
She enters data she collects from patrolling and meeting with the experts, into Cyber Tracker via pocket PC clipped to her windshield, which is later docked to her computer for synchronization. All birdstrike evidence is also collected and sent to the Smithsonian Feather Identification Lab, she said.
“The data collected through the Birdstrike Control Program has been used to improved engine quality and migration patterns and trends have caused us to adapt our methods in habitat management,” she said.
The program’s Border Collies are all rescuers that go through one year of training before being selected for the special assignment, Barker said. They can work until the age of 10, before they retire.
“The most important aspect in the relationship between a dog and the handler is trust and honesty,” Barker said. “I wouldn’t send her out there if there weren’t any birds, because she wouldn’t trust me after that. The dogs work perfectly when you get them. When there’s a problem, it’s with the handler, not the dog.”
With a retrieval call of “Load up!” Barker and Sonic drive off the airfield to check out the rest of the base for wildlife hazards.
Sonic Boom, a six-year-old Border Collie working for the Birdstrike Control Program at March Field, guards a dead rodent she found in a flooded area near the runway. Sonic stood guard until her hander, Heather Baker, arrived to dispose of the rodent. (U.S. Air Force photo/Linda Welz)