Earlier this month, Wichita Falls officials announced that they were doing battle with a familiar foe: the cattle egret. You’ve probably seen one before, even if you didn’t know its name—it’s a tall, white bird with a proclivity for perching on the backs of cattle, dining on the swarm of insects stirred up by a herd. The migratory bird lives in Mexico and Central America year-round and uses Texas as a breeding ground each spring before the state’s simmer turns to swelter. Wichita Falls, a city of 103,000 located on the Red River that blessedly separates Texas from Oklahoma, has been a popular egret hangout for years. 

The birds are persona non grata for city officials and the top brass at Sheppard Air Force Base, which hosts an international pilot training program and shares a regional airport with Wichita Falls. That’s because egrets have the unfortunate tendency to fly across local airfields in search of food, putting them in the paths of departing and arriving aircraft. As you might guess, birds and planes are not a match made in heaven—or even in the airspace slightly below it. In 2013, an egret collision knocked an $8 million training jet out of the sky at Sheppard. The two pilots were able to eject before the plane crashed; they escaped with minor injuries. You can think of egrets as the wildlife equivalent of a party crasher: they show up uninvited, eat all the food, and then start fights.  

Local officials have worked to keep the birds away from aircraft in subsequent years, enlisting various techniques to shoo them off runway-adjacent areas, says John Burrus, Wichita Falls’ director of aviation, traffic, and transportation. Among these tools are noisemaking devices such as propane cannons and pyrotechnics, along with habitat removal and, in the most extreme cases, live ordnance. A waterslide at the city’s municipal water park does double duty as a makeshift egret observation post. Officials have even resorted to name-calling, describing the birds as “noisy” and “messy” in a previous press release. “They’re nasty . . . and unfortunately, this is the time of year that it hits us,” Burrus says. A Sheppard spokesperson said in a statement that the crop of egrets has been beaten back after a six-day offensive. “Since executing the project, there have not been any egret sightings over the airfield,” she wrote.  

Such situations arise regularly in Texas and abroad, though egrets aren’t always the culprits. Grackles, geese, and vultures also cause problems because of their size and inclination to travel long distances for food and water. Last month two United Airlines flights were forced to land in Houston after being struck by birds. Hundreds of bird strikes are reported at the city’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport each year. In 2019 a bird whacked the Plexiglass canopy of a jet returning to U.S. Joint Base San Antonio–Randolph, shattering the canopy and forcing an emergency landing. Officials at these and other airfields across the state have tried to prevent future strikes by making their landscapes incompatible with avian life: removing large trees that would be attractive roosting sites, filling in low spots that collect water, and eradicating seed-producing weeds. Experts say the steps have been met with positive results.  

Perhaps the best-known bird-strike incident didn’t happen in Texas at all, but in New York. In 2009 a commercial jetliner hit a flock of geese near the Hudson River. The collision caused both engines to shut down, and pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (who grew up in the North Texas town of Denison) was somehow able to land the plane in the river with no deaths. It was dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson” and was later memorialized in a film starring a mustachioed Tom Hanks.

Texas airports reported 1,400 wildlife strikes in 2022, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which tracks the incidents in all fifty states. Most strikes happen during the day, and about half occur from the months of July to October. The agency says the number of strikes is increasing, and it has opined that birds have less warning of approaching aircraft because modern engines run more quietly than they did in the past. 

The San Antonio airport system is one of the only airport systems in the nation that employs a full-time wildlife biologist. Marcus Machemehl has had the job since 2009, and he has his hands full. Once he had to catch a rhesus macaque that was running amok in the baggage claim area. “Any day I come to work, it’s never the same,” he says. The airport system counts approximately one hundred wildlife strikes a year, though only one or two of them do serious damage. The number would likely be higher if not for Machemehl’s proactive trapping and relocation program, which sees him capturing an average of thirty raptors per year (mostly red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks) and releasing them sixty miles away. Any time a strike occurs, Machemehl tries to identify the animal that caused the damage. When he can’t, he uses an alcohol swab to clean the affected area and sends the swab off to the Smithsonian Institution, which does DNA testing to solve the mystery.      

It’s not just birds that pose problems for aircraft, either. Pick any critter—it’s probably caused a Texas airport operator to lose sleep at night. At Sheppard Air Force Base, the rural area surrounding its airfield has an endemic population of jackrabbits that sometimes draws coyotes onto the runways, where they can be struck by planes’ landing gear. At the small airport in Bridgeport, northwest of Fort Worth, officials have dealt with deer clambering onto the airfield, says Austin Hill, the wildlife biologist who developed a mitigation plan for the airport. (He suggested they build a fence around the property to keep the animals out.) Chris Hamilton, another biologist who develops mitigation plans for Texas airports, says he once saw nutrias clog a drainage pipe near a North Texas airport. The resulting flooding created a waterfowl-friendly wetland that was airport-adjacent. “We’re in the Central Flyway for waterfowl. So this time of year when waterfowl are migrating, any water body is attractive,” he says.         

Some airports have invented creative methods to deter the presence of anything with wings or a snout or more than two legs. At the Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport, a wildlife biologist performed autopsies on dead birds to determine what they had been eating. With the help of a botanist, she zeroed in on seeds from specific plants; officials then worked to eradicate the plants from the grounds. Other airports have taken a high-tech approach, enlisting the help of drone operators to send problematic birds packing. A company in Alberta has even created a drone that looks like a real falcon—the wings flap and everything—to do the trick.

Federal law restricts the removal techniques available to airports after migratory birds have built a nest, so it’s key that they’re removed before that occurs. Burrus, the Wichita Falls aviation director, says, “You can get yourself in trouble if you do the wrong type of mitigation, particularly if they’re already nesting.” After all, “egret” is only one r away from “regret.” In Wichita Falls, a tentative victory has been claimed over the birds, though local aircraft won’t be in the clear until mid-June, a Sheppard spokesperson says. With any luck, the egrets will stay away—at least until next year. “It’s an ongoing thing for us,” Burrus says. “If you would have asked me twenty-five years ago, I would have said, ‘Eh, it’s not really a big deal.’ But guess what? It’s a really big deal.”