Laura Francoeur

Why does the terrapin cross the runway?


Laura Francoeur and her team balance wildlife protection and air safety.

To rescue a turtle on a roadway is one thing.
To rescue a turtle on a runway is quite another.
Look left. Look right. Look UP.

This is the mission on a New York afternoon, as the Diamondback terrapins poke their heads from their telltale geometrically patterned shells, plodding to cross the JFK International Airport runway jutting into Jamaica Bay.

The wildlife patrol team plucks them from danger and tucks hatchlings into a see-through plastic bag while adults go into the back of patrol pickups, the first step in relocating them to safety.

The loudspeaker atop a yellow-striped, white patrol SUV babbles airport tower chatter until, clear as a bell, comes “Four Left” — the two words you were warned about.

“Go, now,” commands Laura Francoeur. “Off the runway.”

We hightail it to the safety of the crew-cut coarse grass apron. The twin turbine engines roar as the jetliner whooshes by no more than 10 yards away, leaving you feeling out of scale on this landscape, oddly like some small animal beside a highway.

Awed by the din, I look at Francoeur, who smiles, then quips, “It’s just another day at work.”

Managing wildlife and protecting the public

Clemson alumna Laura Francoeur is chief wildlife biologist for New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, “Gateway to the World.”

But today, the world will have to wait, while Francoeur picks up Diamondback terrapins following their instincts.

In 2012 more than 1,300 terrapins were picked up by runway patrols during summer nesting season. The critters became media darlings, even getting their own Twitter handle #JFKturtles. “I did a Google search once for JFK and turtles and there were more than 900,000 hits,” Francoeur says.

To the public and media, Francoeur and wildlife patrol staffers are saving turtles. Actually they are protecting the airport by managing a wildlife problem. While the terrapins pose little hazard to the planes, they do cause a big headache for airport operations.

“Pilots on the taxiways will see a terrapin or a bunch of them, and will hold their positions and radio the tower to have someone from operations come out to pick them up,” Francoeur says. “During nesting season in the early summer, sometimes there are dozens of terrapins in the way. Delays are usually no more than 10 minutes, but they have gone on for nearly an hour.”

Why does the terrapin cross the runway? To get to the other side.

Terrapin crossing the runway.

Terrapin crossing the runway.

Runway 4L juts 400 feet into Jamaica Bay. On one side the terrapins live their lives and mate. On the other, females dig nests to lay their eggs. The biologists have had to figure ways to block the terrapins. Existing fences did not stop the turtles, which would look for gaps to slip under or trudge to the end and go around. The best solution so far is corrugated plastic pipe laid on the ground. The airport has installed more than 4,000 feet of it. “They can’t get a grip and slide back, and the pipe is staying on the ground,” Francoeur says. “The terrapins finally give up and lay their eggs outside the fence.”

Francoeur presented the JFK terrapin work during the 15th Wildlife Damage Management Conference held at Clemson last March. She had time to catch up with friends and colleagues, including her graduate program adviser, wildlife professor Greg Yarrow.

Wildlife-damage management, regardless of the problem species, has four basic components, according to Yarrow, now a division chair in the School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences. It’s problem-solving that follows a process: You define the problem by identifying and assessing the damage. Next, study the behavior and ecology of the problem species. Then choose and apply controls, and finally evaluate the results.
Yarrow remembers Francoeur, who graduated in 1995 with a master’s in wildlife biology, and her thesis about deer damage to soybean fields.

Nicknamed “Spike” for her short-cropped gel-spiked blond hair, Francoeur was one of “the graduate students we had then who went all out all the time,” Yarrow says. “They were a group of great graduate students that put Clemson wildlife biology on the map.”

“Wildlife management was the right fit for me,” Francoeur says.

Arbitrating the conflicts of nature and development

Wildlife and airplanes have needed managing since the beginning of flight. Orville Wright wrote in his diary about a 1910 run-in with birds. In 2012, approximately 10,900 wildlife strikes to U.S. civilian aircraft were reported. Since 1988, more than 250 people have died because of wildlife strikes worldwide, according to the U.S. Bird Strike Committee. Damage to nonmilitary U.S. aircraft from wildlife strikes costs about $700 million a year.

A day with Francoeur and a colleague, wildlife biologist Jeff Kolodzinski, offers a glimpse of JFK from the outside in. The terminals, ticketing counters, TSA checkpoints, quick-bite joints, concourses and baggage carousels are out of sight, but not out of mind. “Our job is safety, looking for and controlling wildlife hazards,” said Francoeur.

It’s a deceptively simple statement, as complicated to achieve as is running an airport as big as a New York City borough. About 15 miles from downtown Manhattan, JFK borders the borough of Queens, Nassau County and Long Island.

In statistical description alone, JFK is a mind-boggling place, a city within a city. Some 49 million passengers buckle up for more than 400,000 takeoffs and landings a year on four runways linked by 25 miles of taxiways. Sited on 5,000 acres, the airport core is the 880-acre Central Terminal Area encompassing six airline terminals along with parking lots, hangars, administrative buildings and cargo facilities connected by 30 miles of road. More than 35,000 people work there. JFK’s economic impact in the region exceeds $30 billion a year.

It is a microcosm of the world coping with economic and environmental factors, where nature runs into increasing conflicts with its human neighbors.

Francoeur began her career in Newport News, Va., where she conducted wildlife-hazard assessments for airports and landfills for USDA Wildlife Services. Since 1999, she has been part of the wildlife management team dealing with animals that live or pass through the airports operated by Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — JFK, LaGuardia, Newark Liberty International, Teterboro and Stewart International outside of Newburgh, N.Y.

The work is challenging, even daunting. Animals don’t follow regulations and sometimes neither do people. The job requires a multi-tasker — part biologist, bureaucrat, trainer, forensic investigator and enforcer.

On any given day, Francoeur may work on how to discourage hawks from using airports as hunting grounds or preventing deer from dashing across runways. There are meetings with Federal Aviation Agency officials who regulate airports, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service professionals, as well as state and local leaders. Topics can involve everything from designing new parks (tree selection can affect bird roosting) to supervising taxicab sanitation (some cabbies were tossing their edible trash where animals
could eat it).

JFK also has a unique stakeholder — the U.S. Park Service. The airport and the Gateway National Recreation Area Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge interlace in the marshes and upland scrublands that harbor more than 325 bird species.

A CSI for bird collisions

Birds, especially bigger ones like gulls, geese and brants, are an obsession.

“We were mostly in the background until 1549,” said Francoeur. On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 taking off from LaGuardia Airport collided with Canada geese, forcing Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to land the plane in the Hudson River, saving all 155 passengers and crew.

“Collecting information on bird strikes — reporting them, when and where it happened, the species involved, the extent of damage and how long the plane was out of operation — helps us know how to prepare and respond,” Francoeur says. “We do a lot of training to help airport personnel to know what to do and who to call.”

Being a CSI for bird collisions is also a big part of the job. When a bird collision occurs or a bird carcass is found around the runways, the wildlife management team dons latex gloves and breaks out the evidence collection kits. Often the remains of a smashed bird or one sucked through a jet engine are not readily identifiable.

“It’s called ‘snarge,’” says Francoeur. Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab made up the term for the mess of bird tissue, blood and feathers biologists bag and tag for identification. Tools ranging from DNA to microscopic feather analyses help researchers look for clues and narrow the search. The lab processes about 3,000 cases a year, adding to the FAA Wildlife Strike Database.

Set up in 1990, the database contains more than 133,000 reports. The actual number of strikes is far greater. Officials estimate that only 20 percent — one in five — wildlife strikes are reported.

Experts say hazards from wildlife conflicts are rising, as animal populations increase and adapt to living closer to humans. The number of Canada geese — the species that caused Flight 1549 to ditch in the Hudson River — has risen from 1 million birds in 1990 to more than 3.5 million in 2012, according to U.S. Bird Strike Committee data.

Meanwhile, the number of passengers getting on planes nationwide has soared from 310 million in 1980 to 715 million in 2011 on 25 million flights — a number expected to climb to 37 million by 2030.

The friendly skies have gotten a lot more crowded. It’s a serious concern, but for Francoeur and her colleagues it’s a manageable one for now.

More stories about wildlife management at JFK can be found at:

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