CHARLESTON, S.C. Cole and Babe are a new breed of special forces border collies deployed along the flight line of the Charleston Air Force Base to scare off the herons, egrets and gulls that can cause costly damage to military airplanes.
For the last year and a half, the black-and-white dogs have been a fixture on the Charleston air base, spooking birds from drainage ditches and tall grasses along the edge of the runway against the backdrop of nearly two dozen daily C-17 missions.
The collies, part of a civilian contract with North Carolina-based Flyaway Farm and Kennels, represent an environmentally sensitive approach to wildlife management that has caught on in recent years everywhere from golf courses and parks to airports.
"The birds see border collies as a natural threat," said company owner Rebecca Ryan, who also manages wildlife issues for two other East Coast air bases. "We try to convince the birds that the airfield is not a safe place to be."
In communities nationwide, natural habitats for birds and other animals have dwindled as suburbs have grown. As a result, airfields offer some of the larger urban green spaces around, often luring birds in search of a bite to eat.
While trends in years past were to shoot birds that strayed onto airfields, wildlife experts say that approach is shortsighted because birds don't understand the threat. Border collies, however, closely resemble birds' natural predators, such as wolves and coyotes, and therefore create a long-term sense that an area is unsafe.
According to company statistics, the efforts are paying off. In May and June 2003, when the program started at Charleston, more than 3,000 cattle egrets were chased off the airfield. During the same period a year later, only 550 cattle egrets were scared off, a decline of more than 80 percent. Company officials also say flock sizes have been cut in half, from an average of about 15 birds per flock in 2003 to about seven now.
Those decreases have translated into fewer collisions between birds and airplanes, which can cause anywhere from a few thousand dollars in damage to rare cases when a bird sucked into an engine has forced a plane down. In the first five months of 2003, there were 10 bird strikes. During the same period last year, there were only four.
Air Force officials say those numbers make the $180,000 annual price tag a good deal, particularly when it comes to protecting the roughly $250 million C-17 that is the backbone of transportation into war zones in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The contract also covers the Air Force's airstrip in North in rural Orangeburg County.
"The Air Force has lost entire airplanes because of birds," said Lt. Col. Steve Dye, chief of safety at the air base. "Imagine an Indy car racer hitting a bird. A bird will go all the way through a wing."
On Tuesday, wildlife coordinator Kevin Powell cruised the edge of the 9,000-foot runway in his Jeep with Cole and Babe peering out the back windows. At the edge of the runway, Powell stopped, opened the back of the Jeep and watched as the collies darted into a drainage ditch on the side. A C-17 roared behind as the birds scattered. "I try to vary my routine. The birds catch on with time," said Powell, who spends much of his time on the flight line early in the morning and late in the day when the birds are most active. "Border collies are relentless chasers and herders."
Flyaway Farm and Kennels, which has about a half- dozen employees, also handles wildlife management for Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, using a combination of border collies and pyrotechnics to scare birds. Part of the company's work also involves teaching local officials ways to cut down on elements that attract birds, such eliminating standing pools that water birds use for wading.
John Hadidian, director of the Urban Wildlife Protection Program at The Humane Society of the United States, said he hopes the trend will continue. "This is something that is going to become more and more popular and more and more recognized for the value it brings," Hadidian said. "It makes a whole lot of sense economically, administratively and operationally."