Blog. Britain's Busiest Airport

Learn to sing like a bird with ‘Airside Ian’

Birds and aircraft really don’t mix, so it’s the job of “Airside Ian” and his colleagues to keep them apart. As seen in HBBA, that can mean going to extraordinary lengths – from singing like a bird to driving like a crow.*

Heathrow: Britain's Busiest Airport - find out more

Here, Ian explains how and why bird patrol calls for unusual methods, as well as demonstrating five of his favourite bird calls for you to try at home. 

Ian’s top 5 bird calls

Compare Ian’s impressions with the real thing: britishbirdsongs.co.uk

Bird patrol 

All airports must take measures to reduce the risk of birdstrike. In the wrong place, large birds – or flocks of smaller ones – can pose a serious hazard to aircraft. 

At Heathrow there are always two dedicated bird patrol vehicles on duty (one for each runway). For Ian – who in his spare time enjoys both plane-spotting and birdwatching – it’s a favourite part of the job. 

“I think some people find it boring but for me it’s really fascinating and enjoyable to see and hear all the different birds. Obviously, the object is not to see any birds at all! But I do enjoy seeing them.” 

While Heathrow manages 13 nature conservation areas on-site, covering 170 hectares, it’s a different story on the airfield.  There, even the length and type of grass is carefully managed to deter wandering wildlife.

The idea, says Ian, is to divert birds away from the runways: “Why would they want to come to Heathrow when a few minutes down the road there’s a fantastic nature reserve full of insects to eat and places to roost? 

“As a company we do whatever we can to ensure it’s safe for aircraft and for our passengers, but we’re also looking after the environment.” 

Humane approach 

This doesn’t stop every bird, of course. Those that enter the airfield can range from swans and geese to flocks of starlings or gulls. This is where Ian uses the many tricks of his trade. 

Safety officials are ultimately allowed to kill birds to prevent an accident, but it’s the last thing anyone wants to do. “My goal is to make sure we don’t get to that position in the first place,” says Ian. 

So instead the birds are moved along repeatedly until they’re no longer a risk to aircraft. “It’s all done humanely,” he says. “You’re just moving the bird off to another area, you don’t have to kill it or injure it. All you’re doing is making it a bit uncomfortable.” 

Ian’s bird-scaring methods 

  1. Sound the horn of the patrol vehicle. 
  2. Use the Digi-Scarer – a device which plays recorded distress calls of various species over the vehicle’s external speaker
  3. Record a snippet of your own (here’s where the bird impressions come in handy). Play it repeatedly over the speakers. 
  4. Get out of the vehicle and walk towards the birds while flapping your arms.
  5. Shake a plastic bin liner around – white for gulls or black for crows – giving the impression you have a bird by the neck.
  6. * Drive towards stubborn crows, flapping your free arm out of the open window and shouting the birds’ call. As seen on TV. 
  7. Fire pyrotechnics into the air. Particularly effective when both bird patrol vehicles (codenamed Phoenix and Seagull) work together.

In some cases – for instance, gulls gathering on top of the cargo building – bird patrollers may use drones or even lasers to send the birds on their way. Both methods need careful handling around the airfield. 

Safe as swans

But it isn’t always needed – sometimes the birds get the message without prompting. Ian recently watched two swans fly along the perimeter road, parallel to the runway, then turn at the end and cross the airfield well below the flight path. 

“I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it,” he says. 

Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport

Heathrow at night

The documentary cameras return for a behind-the-scenes look at the people who keep Heathrow running. Meet air traffic controllers, sanitation engineers, Border Force officers and front-line Passenger Experience Managers – and share their daily challenges in this ‘city within a city’ where no two days are alike.

HBBA main page

2 thoughts to “Learn to sing like a bird with ‘Airside Ian’”

  1. Very enjoyable what a diverse of skilled staff you employ across a range of specialist expertise – biodiversity to people security
    I have been travelling in / out of London Heathrow since 1973 !! and I have seen so many changes – all positive Terminal 2 is very impressive as Cork is always my final destination when I arrive back after being in some far flung destination

    Keep up the great work

    Always a pleasure going through Heathow Airport

    Best Wishes

    Patrick

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