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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Porter Airlines to Put Human and Bird Lives at Risk

And Even The Critics Are Unaware

Published 04/17/13

To understand the reason even the critics are ignoring why proposed use of jet planes at Billy Bishop Airport by Porter (or any other) Airlines is a bad idea, one has to first know the geography. The tiny airport is located at the west end of a crescent-shaped island and adjoining islets that roughly run east and west, parallel the shoreline of downtown Toronto, North America’s third-largest city by population, located on the shore of Lake Ontario. Toronto Island consists of about 230 hectares (about 570 acres). The island curves north at its western end and embraces the Inner Harbor, which is kept from being land-locked by a narrow channel, or gap, at each end.

Jets are currently not allowed to use Billy Bishop Airport, situated at the west end of Toronto Island, in part because of concerns about the noise and pollution of jet engines (this is close to where many people live, work or visit), but also because there is no runway long enough to accommodate them. But, Porter is arguing that the new Bombardier C Series 100 jets are so much quieter than what was available when the restrictions were enacted years ago that noise is no longer an issue. Pollution tends to kill us much too slowly to cause vexation when measured against the twin enticements of profits and convenience and would occur anyway, wherever the jets are based. And as to the runway’s length, no problem, just extend the longest one, running roughly east-west, out into the lake at the west end, and into Toronto Harbour at the east end.

Opponents to the idea include those who would prefer no airport, since the islands are otherwise a wonderful, highly accessible (you take a short ferry ride) and highly prized parkland and natural wildlife habitat. It’s certainly convenient to downtown, but Toronto’s Pearson airport, Canada’s biggest airport, will soon be linked by a direct rail ride to Union Station, nearby. Toronto Island is a vital, active area that would be better for more residents and visitors, opponents argue, in the absence of the extra air traffic.

But no one mentions long-tailed ducks, scaup or goldeneyes. Toronto’s diverse waterfront is home to hundreds of thousands waterbirds year round. During the winter a wide variety of waterbirds arrive in the thousands from northern climes to spend the winter in Lake Ontario. I suspect that most folks have never heard of things like horned grebes, long-tailed ducks, common mergansers, greater scaup, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, and so on, but they show up each fall, and until the protected inner harbor freezes over, they invariably use it, along with both resident Canada geese, and those who visit on migration, as well as a local large population of mute swans, plus equally large trumpeter swans. As well there are large numbers of black ducks, mallards and gadwall year round. Spring, summer and fall the largest breeding colonies of ring-billed gulls and double-crested cormorants are nearby, along with night-herons and other birds.

Many, most particularly the wintering ducks, will move from the relative calm of the Inner Harbor to the lake, or other areas on the inside of a breakwater that parallels the shoreline, west of Toronto Island. To do that they fly through the eastern and western gaps. We have one of the largest known winter concentrations of long-tailed ducks anywhere, and when birders from other countries visit in winter and want to see them, I take them to the gaps, where one can enjoy “flybys” of these attractive little ducks at close range — often the best place to see them as they are forced to fly close to shore, right where the runways are projected to go.

If a propeller-driven airplane strikes one of these birds, the bird is instantly minced. The propeller may be damaged, and there are other potential risks, but not great. However, if even a relatively smaller duck, like a long-tailed weighing just over 2 pounds, gets sucked into a jet engine it can cause much more damage. If any part of the engine snaps it creates a cascade effect going back through the motor that can lead to critical loss of forward thrust, with potentially catastrophic results.

Of course a goose, swan or cormorant is heavier, over 30 pounds for a male swan, a serious risk indeed.

The usual answer is to kill off a percentage of the offending species in order to be able to assure the public that “something is being done.” When, on Jan. 15, 2009, an Airbus A320-214 slammed into a flock of Canada Geese and was forced to make an unforgettable landing on the Hudson River, there followed the usual killing of geese, but the ones sucked into the plane’s jet engine were migrants, from Labrador. The birds who were killed did not reduce that risk one iota, it just allowed politicians to say “something was done” to reduce the threat. Nothing was, really, because nothing can be, short of exterminating Canada geese in eastern North America.

In the case of the smaller ducks who so regularly fly where the Toronto Island runway extensions are proposed, many are highly migratory, nesting in the arctic. Killing the ones near the airport would just make room for more (and not be easy to accomplish without resort to firearms, clearly not a tenable option).

While my primary concern is obviously the welfare of the flying public (I’ve flown in and out of that airport myself) I am also saddened by the backlash that will be inevitable, on the heels of the first serious crash. Birds and planes don’t mix.

Blogging off,

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