Amsterdam-Schiphol's Pesky Feathered Friends

Airports around the world have struggled to come up with effective solutions to prevent bird strikes. The force of a jet hitting a flock of geese or for that matter even a single bird can cause a plane to crash. The planting of ‘elephant grass’ in the area of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has proved to be a major help in solving this safety problem and at the same time reduces the unpopular culling of geese around this fifth busiest airport in Europe. The grass is very tall, easy to grow, and most importantly… birds don’t like it.

Skyline Amsterdam Airport Schiphol with KLM aircraft

Skyline Amsterdam Airport Schiphol with KLM aircraft

Image: Amsterdam Schiphol Airport

Popular stopover

If it has wings it loves Holland. With over half a million incoming and outgoing aircraft flights a year Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is one of the main gateways to Europe and a popular stopover on long intercontinental flights.

Our feathered friends love Holland, too. On the edge of the North Sea and mainland Europe the Netherlands is a popular stopover for birds, especially in spring and autumn during their massive migration from Africa to Northern Europe, Canada and vice versa. Midway through their long journey, millions of waders, ducks and geese choose Holland as a convenient rest stop and place to forage before flying on.

The geese agree

While  Schiphol  is a favorite end destination for many international flights, others use the airport in much the same way as the migrating birds – a place to refuel and forage before moving on. However, it seems nowadays many more geese ‘seem to agree’ with the former, and are making Schiphol and its surroundings their final destination,  an excellent spot to conclude their trip; instead of flying on, they settle down. And this is a problem.

Colliding

When an unlucky small bird is ‘sucked’ into a jet engine not much damage is done; but a large goose is something quite different. In June 2010 a departing RA Maroc jet from Schiphol had to make a forced landing after one of its engines sucked up a mature Canadian goose.

After that the Dutch Safety Board decided measures had to be taken. In the area of Schiphol around the same time, nearly 60,000 geese had settled there were an estimated 7 collisions with geese per 10,000 flights. No major accidents occurred, but the danger is always there. Any collision causes delay and damage, technically and economical, and a troubling concern for passengers.

Bold measures

In the first years measures were bold. It started with bringing in hunters to shoot the geese, around 15,000 a year in the area of Schiphol. Although poulterers were happy to sell the meat from the shot geese, Dutch nature and animal protection organizations disliked the practice. A less violent and more ‘animal friendly’ solution was found in catching the geese and then gassing them with carbon dioxide. Better? Less bad, was the public opinion.

Creative solution

In 2011 the Dutch enterprising farmet Gert Jan Petrie came up with a smart idea: growing 'Miscanthus Sinensus Gigantus', or elephant grass around Schiphol. Elephants love it on their diner, but the geese find it impossible. And because the grass grows to over three meters long it also helps in reducing noise in the vicinity of the airport.

In 2015 there were already 100 hectares (247 acres) of elephant grass growing in the Schiphol region. A win-win solution. The crop helps keeping Amsterdam Airport Schiphol safe, aids in noise reduction while at the same time reduces the need for the culling so many geese.

Elephant grass comes with some added benefits, too. It has a high tolerance to brackish groundwater, needs little fertilizer and pesticides, and provides a renewable source of feedstock for bio-based technologies and has a wide range use in building materials, public space furniture, bioplastics, as well as chemicals, biofuels and indeed even kerosene... to fly on!