An Exclusive Look at Bird Strikes

I really haven’t written much about bird strikes on the blog. Yes, they happen a lot, and they can be dangerous, but the hype after the FAA released its data was certainly overdone. I didn’t see a need to join in. But when someone from Tableau Software, a company that focuses on building visualizations from data, reached out to me to offer an exclusive preview of their visualization of the FAA bird strike data for Cranky readers, it piqued my interest.

I was skeptical at first, because I figured it was just another effort to scare people about bird strikes, but I was wrong. It’s really just a cool way to look at the data in a way that’s easy to digest. Here’s my favorite visualization of all the ones they offered. (And yes, this cool thing is completely interactive – if you’re reading this in email, you’ll need to come to the site.)

Bird Strikes by Damage

Bird Strikes by Damage

You can play with this thing for hours and it never gets old. (Or maybe that’s just the dork in me.) But some things really stick out. As you can see, since 1990, 86.51% of strikes have resulted in no damage whatsoever. If we only look at data since 2005, that number climbs to 90.08%.

A whopping total of .06% of bird strikes destroyed the airplane. That’s 11 airplanes out of the 20,000 that have hit birds since 2005. (And this only goes through 2008, so it doesn’t include the ditching in the Hudson.) You’ll notice that props receive damage more often than jets. I’m guessing that’s because jets digest birds better? But we’re still talking tiny numbers here.

One thing that is interesting is to drag this back out to 1990, and you can see that bird strike reports have gone way up in the last 10 years. Are the birds now out to get us? Yes, but that’s why there’s no airport in Bodega Bay. The reality is that if an airplane is severely damaged or destroyed, that’s always going to get reported. It’s the ones that are minor and cause no damage that probably get ignored. Since the late 1990s, there has clearly been a trend for more people to report those as well. That’s a good thing.

Even with this increase in reports, the total number is probably still being underestimated. There are likely many more minor bird strikes out there that still don’t get reported, so the percentage that cause damage is probably even lower than the already low number you see.

There’s a lot more to play with on the Tableau site at tableausoftware.com/snarge. What is “snarge” you ask? I wanted to know that as well. Apparently that’s what they call the bird remains that are found on the airplane – you know, the stuff they send to the feds to analyze. Nasty. But what a great word.

As you can tell, bird strikes are a threat, but they’re a very small threat in the scheme of things. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored, but it’s important to keep them in perspective.

17 Responses to An Exclusive Look at Bird Strikes

  1. Axelsarki says:

    I like the software there, CF! Really interesting, thanks for posting.

  2. I have a sneaky suspicion props hit birds more often because those planes spend more time in the bird altitudes (it is very rare to find a bird at jet cruise altitudes). Also, prop airplanes typically have more takeoffs and landings.

    I have hit many birds while flying. I always feel bad about it, but not once has my plane had anything worse than a small divet. I even hit a hawk while flying cargo and nothing came of it.

    One of my bird strikes could have actually been funny. I was directly over top the PDX terminal above the skylights when I flew through a flock. I couldn’t help but break a smile when I thought of the slight potential of people being under those windows and watching birds hit.

  3. You’re probably right speculating that many birdstrikes still go unreported. If no damage was done, the pilot may not even be aware of a birdstrike (assuming the “snarge” blew off). Other pilots and operators have a real aversion to anything that could conceivably draw FAA attention to themselves.

    I’ve surprisingly only had one birdstrike in my career so far. It was pretty typical and the airplane suffered no damage. We still reported the event to ATC, and then to company maintenance once safely on the ground.

  4. David SFeastbay says:

    Greg Thomson wrote:

    I have a sneaky suspicion props hit birds more often because those planes spend more time in the bird altitudes (it is very rare to find a bird at jet cruise altitudes). Also, prop airplanes typically have more takeoffs and landings.

    I was going to say the same thing. Plus small planes use a lot of small airports which can be in rural areas which might have more birds living and feeding on nearby trees and crops.

  5. CF says:

    Greg Thomson wrote:

    I have a sneaky suspicion props hit birds more often because those planes spend more time in the bird altitudes (it is very rare to find a bird at jet cruise altitudes). Also, prop airplanes typically have more takeoffs and landings.

    That would make sense, but this data doesn’t show more props hitting birds but rather more props getting damaged when they hit a bird. It’s not talking about frequency here.

  6. Johnny Jet says:

    Good info Cranky! My AA plane had a bird strike a couple years ago after takeoff from FLL. We had to make an emergency landing in MIA but all was good. Here’s that story http://www.johnnyjet.com/folder/archive/WheresJohnny050220072.html

  7. The data does in fact go up to about March 2009. You can use the slider to go all the way out. The default view doesn’t include 2009 though, because with partial data for the year it makes it look like snarge fell dramatically.

    By the way, very interesting to read comments from pilots who’ve hit birds. Adds some color to the data.

  8. I’ll be fiddling with this data some more, but the number I want is the number of strikes per 1000 cycles, comparing that between turbo props an jets. It’d also be nice to tease out only commercial operations as well.

  9. CF says:

    And FYI, Ellie Fields is the person from Tableau.

    Nicholas Barnard wrote:

    I’ll be fiddling with this data some more, but the number I want is the number of strikes per 1000 cycles, comparing that between turbo props an jets. It’d also be nice to tease out only commercial operations as well.

    Agreed. The data is there for everyone to see. It’s the FAA list here:
    http://wildlife-mitigation.tc.faa.gov/public_html/index.html

    So if you feel like digging into the weeds, have at it!

  10. Could the increase in strikes (or more snarge) be because of the yearly increase in Air Travel over the last decade, be good to do a excellent comparison on both, 2009 would be really interesting as the numbers of flights are a lot lower..another point is if we keep snarging these poor animals when will there numbers drop like the fish in the sea.

  11. Mike says:

    I think that birds are just p-o’d that planes can fly faster and higher than them, and they are retaliating!

  12. Jeffrey says:

    You’d be surprised how accurate the FAA’s record on bird strikes are.

    It is true that most pilots will not report minor strikes, but any dead bird or animal found on an airport runway/taxiway is considered a strike and logged as such by the airport, which in turn gets reported to the FAA.

    I find dead birds including bats, starlings, doves, etc every SINGLE day and on our airport’s runways and none of which have been reported to ATC.

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