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On Birds at the Airport

A story from my internship

By Rosie Ford Published 11 months ago 10 min read
2

It’s 07:30 and I’m still not awake, which wouldn’t be all that concerning except I’ve just driven thirty miles and I don’t remember any of them. Now Bobby is driving me around the abandoned golf course just south of the international airport, creeping over old golf cart tracks I don’t see until we’re on them.

“I do this every morning,” he says. “Scare away the larger wildlife.”

It’s hard to imagine a better office—aside from the mosquitoes, which slip inside the truck every time he cracks the window. The sun is coming up over the largest water trap, now pond, and the green, now wetland. The cattails wear halos of golden sunlight and the air is heavy with moisture. Bobby lines up parallel with the bank of the pond and pulls a flare gun from his work bag. “Those are blue herons,” he says. I follow his gaze. Sure enough, a flock of birds with legs like stilts and white under their chins are hiding in the reeds. “You might want to cover your ears.”

I cover my ears. The flare squeals and the herons take to the air. The golf course is almost like heaven in its beauty—or at least how I imagine heaven to look—but nothing is supposed to be here. And soon nothing will be; Delta plans to build a new parking lot over it.

Bobby is the kind of guy who, if his name weren’t Bobby, it would be Billy. He’s from Arkansas. Hated university but pushed through to the end and got a degree in biology. He gripes that the airport’s city employees make more than he does as a federal contractor, but agrees that the benefits are alright when I try to find a bright side.

We see the tail of a fox bound into the bushes, a whole rabbit desperately zigzagging in front of the truck, and a whole coyote staring at us from across one of the canals during the next half hour. It’s more wildlife than Bobby ever sees in such a short window, he tells me. I decide I must be a Disney Princess. He pauses when the coyote is directly across from us and gets out his rifle, but it’s gone before he can even load the gun. I shouldn’t be on its side, but I am.

When the half hour is up, Bobby goes to meet someone from the Division of Natural Resources in the old parking lot. They’re here to sample the fish in the wetlands surrounding the airport and figure out what the local pelicans are eating. You’d think that an airplane would win in a fight with a pelican, but no. Turns out they’re about equal. The pelicans die, but so does the jet engine evolution hasn’t told them to avoid yet.

I watch the DNR people take their boat off the trailer and set up their fish taser, which comes in three pieces. The positive and negative electrodes look like ugly, silver chandeliers without crystals, and the boat itself is supposed to complete the circuit. “I think,” says the DNR guy. “I’m not exactly sure.”

We all laugh, even though that sounds like a safety hazard to me. But I’m the airport operations intern; this is the wildlife department. Besides the animals, the biggest difference between our departments is how seriously we take self-preservation.

They launch the aluminum boat and put the electrodes in the water. Any fish within a six-foot radius is stunned, scooped into a net, and placed in a bucket so it can be weighed and measured—which would be exciting if they weren’t taking forty minutes to do it. The fish are huge, thirty-six-inch rainbow carp that weigh almost nine pounds, which is well over half what the pelicans weigh. They sure as hell aren’t eating those, so the mystery continues. They drive the boat to one of the canals that feed the Jordan River to try again.

Bobby abandons me following an invitation to come along on the boat, which is the last I ever see of him. He drives the same white F-150 the city employees do, but beyond that, it’s clear he doesn’t fit in with the group. I’m not sure he cares to fit in.

Another wildlife truck pulls up and parks on the concrete bridge over the canal. The driver comes down the embankment to the DNR interns and me, who have nothing in common. Thank goodness he’s here. He introduces himself as Ray. I was supposed to shadow him when the DNR came, but I wanted to watch them tase the fish first.

“I came to see what they were doing,” he says as the boat disappears behind the reeds. “This is pretty boring.”

I have to agree. I entertain myself with my phone; Ray pulls a damn snake out of the grass, bare-handed, and holds it up by the tail so I can see it. “Gopher snake,” he says. “Big one.”

The snake’s tongue flicks in and out and its blind, wide-set eyes search for shadows and movement. It doesn’t struggle, just resigns to the fact that a much larger animal literally has it by the tail. Ray lets the snake go and it retreats nonchalantly into the tall grass, probably figuring it would be dead if the predator in question wanted it to be. Ray raises snakes at home: ball pythons and Asian vine snakes, which, unlike the gopher snake, are venomous. Of course he has snakes at home. Of course. He also has a pit bull named Coco, who obviously gets more treats than she needs.

After the snake disappears into the grass, I leave with Ray since I was supposed to be with him instead of Bobby anyway. We spend the next four hours laughing about how stupid the hawks that plague the airfield are. “They’ll watch one bird get trapped and then come down and do the same thing. They’re smart out in nature,” he says, “but not here. There are just too many new things—they don’t understand the danger.”

He drives into the grasses between taxiways, to a large bird trap I never noticed when I was on patrol with the airfield specialists. Black starlings hop down from their perches, then back up. Down and up. Down and up. Down and up. Ray feeds the birds in the cage and gets a trap out of the truck. “We’ll use one of these as bait. Hopefully we can catch a hawk today.”

“I was promised I would get to hold one,” I say.

“We’ll see. We’ve had to cull most of them because the bird flu is spreading around here,” Ray says, and takes the poor starling back to the truck. We find the perfect spot in some short grass next to a gravel access road. Hawks hover above us in the summer wind, searching. If one of them takes the bait, the trap will tighten around its talons, and added weight will prevent it from flying away. The starling hops back and forth from one end of the trap to the other. I warn the little bird of the impending terror—though the hawk won’t be able to kill it through the wire mesh—and Ray and I move the truck away to wait.

If we do catch a hawk, someone from the wildlife department will tag the bird, drive it at least sixty miles from the airport, and shoot it if it returns. But none of the birds are taking the bait, just looking at it.

Ray has a personal quota to meet, so we leave the trap behind and go looking for more hawks. “Are you okay if I shoot one?” he asks.

I shrug and say yes, not really knowing the answer to that question. Ray loads the shotgun. I cover my ears again and wait.

The kill isn’t clean. Wounded, the hawk takes to the air, but doesn’t make it more than a few feet. Ray pulls again. And it’s over.

Two minutes ago the hawk was staring at us from the side of the access road. Now it’s empty, its beak hanging open, grey lids covering its eyes, wings dangling. But it doesn’t bleed; it could almost be asleep. Ray grabs it by the neck with a mechanical arm and puts it in the truck bed. “Sorry. I guess you didn’t get to hold one today.”

“Well . . . at least I got to see one,” I say, trying to look on the bright side again, and simultaneously deciding this is the one job at the airport I don’t want to do. But I’m glad someone does the job; I can see that Ray takes no pleasure in harming the animals. Any of the wildlife specialists would rather relocate them, but there are just too many. The airport is so large and unnatural that it’s bound to conflict with the preexisting ecosystem. It’s the price we and the animals pay for human safety aboard commercial aircraft.

A few weeks later, when my boss asks if I want to spend another day with the wildlife department, I don’t decline. Ray has a great sense of humor and a hell of a sweet tooth. He also uses a lot of hand sanitizer, which I’m more than okay with.

Today Ray and a coworker, Sean, have an extra task outside of their normal bird-catching duties. South of the airport is a golf course; northwest of the airport is a duck club whose birds constantly wander out of their bounds, and swallows are among the most frequent birdstrike fatalities because they swarm.

Birdstrikes are a regular occurrence at the airport. Some poor soul from airport operations scrapes the remains off the airplane or the runway; puts them in a “bird kit” that includes a zip-loc bag, gloves, and hand sanitizer; and ships them off to the Smithsonian for identification. Sometimes they cause significant damage, like the pelicans. Most of the time they’re just a red smear on a wing or a crack in a windscreen. And the only things standing between the airplanes and the birds are a few guys, and one gal, who don’t seem to experience disgust like the rest of us.

“Are you sure you want to come with us today?” Sean asks. “It won’t be pretty.”

“I don’t like that question. But I’ll go.” Because, like I told my boss back in civilization, “I want to see everything.”

While they fill up the water tank for the pressure washer, which will knock the swallows’ nests down from the bridges in the duck club, Ray tells me to grab a soda from the fridge. I’ve been in this building once. Once. I have only seen one fridge and there’s a sign that says “SPECIMEN FRIDGE” on the door. My brain knows there’s no way that fridge contains anything like soda. I open the door anyway.

I don’t scream when I see the beaver (though I do feel evolution kick in); instead I grit my teeth and make a noise, the kind of noise you make after discovering a four-foot-long beaver stuffed into a fridge like it’s leftover casserole. Done with the wildlife building, I go outside to find Ray and Sean, who’ve filled the water tank about halfway. “Um. Was there supposed to be Coke in that fridge?” I ask. “Because there was a whole ass beaver in there.”

Ray laughs. “The one in the breakroom. You didn’t open the specimen fridge, did you?”

“I’ve been with you the whole time, Ray! I didn’t know there was another fridge! Why do we even have a beaver?”

He laughs harder and shows me where the breakroom is. I grab a diet Coke I don’t want anymore and the three of us head northwest to the duck club.

Ray parks the truck on a bridge over a canal. Not the sketchy bridge, which we crossed on the way here. A solid concrete bridge, under which the swallows have built their nests. Nests where they lay their eggs. Nests where they raise their babies.

Fuck.

Ray straddles one side of the bridge and works the pressure washer underneath the cement lip. I stand well clear and watch the mud fly. Even though the pressure washer puts 3,400 pounds of high-speed water into the nests, Ray has to work pretty hard to knock them down. These birds are engineers. Angry engineers.

The swallows swarm, calling out to each other, to us, to unfeeling gods, as we destroy their homes. Ray gets off the ledge after clearing one side of the bridge and hands the pressure washer to Sean. “Are you sure you don’t want to try?” he asks.

“No, thank you. They’d have to pay me more than fifteen dollars an hour,” I say. Plop. Plop. Plop. I hate that I’m okay with watching the little white eggs float away.

Workplace
2

About the Creator

Rosie Ford

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