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Strange animals hang out at airports

Posted on October 17, 2021 | Comments

People often ask how I come up with column ideas. The simplest answer is to chalk them up to curiosity which according to a great book on the subject, “Curious” by Ian Leslie, I seem to have a healthy dose of it. Also, I have an uncanny knack for finding stories about the strangest things. Such was the case while reading about unusual wildlife, that live at airports of all places, in a weekly email edition of “The Wild,” a publication of the Los Angeles Times.

For starters, San Francisco International Airport has become the home of the largest population of federally protected garter snakes. For years, it was believed that the count was 2000 or less. Now the number for what’s described as the “most beautiful serpent in North America” is up to 13,000. Maybe that’s because the snakes can feed off their favorite snacks, the endangered California red-legged frog, which also resides in the 180-acre parcel of wetlands that surrounds the airport.

Further south, since the 1990s, Los Angeles International Airport has been managing a 300-acre project called the LAX Dunes Preserve located at the western end of the airport. Below the constant roar of jet engines, scientists have found 10 very rare burrowing owls, the most they have seen in 40 years. Likewise, the disappearing El Segundo blue butterfly thrives in the protected preserve along with 900 other plant and animal species. 

The good news is that neither airport has aircraft collision difficulties with these animals although the burrowing owl could be problematic if it took flight. Instead, it’s happy to hang out for the winter at this priceless coastal real estate. However, depending on the surrounding geography of an airport, it’s not uncommon to find stories about wildlife such as deer, alligators, coyote and moose roaming the runways including an excess of worms after a rain.

What attracts the wildlife to the airports? The animals are in search of food. Canadian geese are known to feed on turfgrasses planted alongside runways and other birds like gulls feed off of the insects found in the grasslands. To address these and other animal issues, U.S. federal agencies along with nonprofits and other local groups work together with airports to manage their specific problems. Various techniques are employed including the use of a Border Collie to shoo away the birds at RSW airport in Fort Myers, Florida.

If you’re curious, you’ll find plenty of strange animal stories at airports on the internet. For this month, my strange wildlife story has come to an end.

Originally published, Orange County Register, October 14, 2021

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