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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Evolution will not save aircraft from bird hits

Evolution will not save aircraft from bird hits

India saw a steep incline in bird-hit cases in the first half of 2023. Alas, winged creatures could take almost forever adapting to what humans have wrought. It’s we who must act

A relevant question is whether these little bipeds that first inspired us to fly can count on nature for their survival in the face of aviation-age risks. (Anuwar Hazarika)Premium
A relevant question is whether these little bipeds that first inspired us to fly can count on nature for their survival in the face of aviation-age risks. (Anuwar Hazarika)

Aircraft pilots are wary of bird hits for good reason. The record shows that most of these collisions do little harm, but nobody wants a wind-shield cracked, sensor twisted out of action, jet blade warped, or worse, an engine set on fire by a feathery mishap. Data from India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation, however, shows that we recorded as many as 1,149 bird strikes in the first half of 2023. At 62.3% more than last year’s first six months, this incline is steeper than our growth in the number of flights taking off and landing, which is usually when such accidents occur. The phenomenon itself is common. To tackle the menace, aviation authorities have a dual response. At one end, they run clean-up campaigns around airports, so that avian scavengers have fewer pickings for swoop-ins. At another, they deploy sound-buzz guns and other whizzy tools crafted to fend off winged bipeds that haven’t yet got the 120-year-old memo on our invasion of their airspace with bulky metallic beasts best avoided. One consequence of the weight of aeroplanes is that urban birds might have found that they too can flit across time-zones. The rumble of runways can shake worms out of the ground almost round the clock, which may well have weakened their early-bird incentive. Even if they awaken late, airport grounds have a feast laid out for those ready to wing it there.

Experts of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History are reportedly being consulted by officials in charge of flight safety. One hardly needs a pet parrot to vouch for the ability of birds to pick up things from us, and whether their food hunts got smarter after our species invaded their skies might make for a worthy study. A more relevant question right now, though, is whether these little bipeds that first inspired us to fly can count on nature for their survival in the face of aviation-age risks. Can they not adapt to a changed world and evolve what’s needed to dodge planes that are landing or taking off? The shiny roaring beasts that drum up food can also be fatal—shouldn’t this get wired in? The trouble with evolution is that it happens too slowly. Genes for adaptive traits (say, noise alertness) that natural selection will favour for ‘survival of the fittest’ would take endless kaizen tweaks over countless generations to make an iota of difference. The dazzle of city lights has been around even longer than aviation, but, as evolutionary eggheads point out, a lot of flying bugs are yet to adapt to this shock. They cluster around sources of light at night, trying to get somewhere, but are led right back by their inborn flight guides. As scientist Richard Dawkins explains it, while a moth drawn to a flame may be the stuff of romance, all it means in science is that a nocturnal rudder kit that evolved over millennia to fly by moon- and star-light got jammed, with the hapless insect knocked off course and held captive by a brightness its gene code remains foxed by till this day. While birds are doubtlessly more responsive to human activity than moths are, they can hardly be expected to fare better in an evolutionary game of shape up or crash out.

Clearly, we cannot rely on nature’s help to solve our bird-hit problem, not to speak of the bigger crises we confront. And if it’s our species that must ultimately bear all safety burdens, we must equip ourselves for it. As Dawkins’ 2006 book The God Delusion warns us, we humans are no less susceptible to the sort of folly that entraps bugs. We had better watch out.

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Published: 17 Aug 2023, 09:50 PM IST
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