07/12/95 NASA's Scare Tactics Keep Birds at Bay
By Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL -- The angry, disembodied eyes seem puny against
the spires of launchpad 39B, but they are apparently enough to
frighten a woodpecker.
Called Predator Eyes, they are imprinted on the skin of tethered
yellow balloons that flutter in the ocean breezes around the
steel and concrete launch tower. They, along with the six plastic
Wal-Mart owls and the pad technicians equipped with air horns and
water hoses (a team now known affectionately as "pecker
among the defenses NASA has set up in recent weeks here on the
threshold of space to fend off further assaults by a couple of
love-crazed woodpeckers with tireless beaks.
The space shuttle Discovery, with the pale scars of 205 mended
holes visible in the orange foam insulation of its 15-story
propellant tank (ET), is back in harm's way, on the pad, but
have been no woodpecker sightings in weeks. Launch is scheduled
The problem came to light Memorial Day weekend, when technicians
spotted dozens of perforations up to four inches in diameter.
concluding that the damage could not be repaired in time for a
June 8 lift-off, NASA launch managers ordered the 184-foot
rolled back from the pad to its hangar. They estimate the avian
saboteurs have cost the agency more than $2 million, including up
$100,000 for the extra round trip between pad and hangar as well
payments associated with the five-week delay of the mission to
a sophisticated tracking and data-relay satellite.
The two-inch-thick foam is designed to keep large chunks of ice
from forming on the external tank before a launch, as it is
with super-cooled, explosive liquid oxygen and hydrogen. At
ice could break off and damage the spaceship's surfaces.
Today, officials said, technicians are to remove the "eyes" and
owls so that they are not destroyed when the shuttle blasts off
only to preserve them, but to avoid creating potentially damaging
plastic shrapnel, said Kennedy Space Center spokesman Bruce
Buckingham. If the beaked marauders reappear during this window
vulnerability, launch teams will play a tape "of crows fighting
ospreys squawking" over the pad's loud speakers, he said.
The sabotage apparently was accomplished by just two woodpeckers,
of a type called Northern Flickers (also known as yellow-shafted
flickers), according to NASA test director Steve Altemus,
NASA's new Bird Investigation Review and Deterrent team (BIRD).
the initial reports, dozens of woodpecker prevention tips poured
unsolicited from around the world, including: spray the tank with
water in which cabbage has been boiled, or with raccoon scent;
the entire shuttle with chicken wire; stun the birds with laser
or kill them with plain old shotguns.
The Predator Eyes balloons were sent in by a "mom and pop outfit"
in Minnesota, Buckingham said. The proprietor got the idea for
product on a trip to Japan, where he saw farmers flying this
on the scarecrow over their fields. The owl decoys, purchased at
local Wal-Mart, were recommended by wildlife specialists, he
The launch complex sits in the midst of a wildlife refuge
inhabited by some 400 protected or endangered bird species. A
feature on bus tours is a 25 year-old eagle's nest that is the
a queen-sized mattress. Yet, in the last 15 years, only minimal
damage has been reported to spacecraft -- until now. The BIRD
a preliminary report completed yesterday, suggests that the many
flickers that live around the launch complex are in a turf war
starlings. "It is possible that the flickers attempting to
cavity in the ET had lost a nest or roost cavity to starlings. .
If a nest is overtaken before the female can lay her eggs, the
becomes desperate for a nest. This may explain the unusually
aggressive behavior of the flicker pair that damaged the tank."
The flickers may have given up because they could not penetrate
the tank's aluminum skin to excavate a cavity deep enough for a
the report suggests, "or the scare devices and tactics
date might have succeeded." The report recommends numerous
measures such as making the pad less attractive to the birds by
burning or cutting vegetation, removing dead stumps, posts and
"prime flicker habitat," and making the ant population -- a
the flicker diet -- less accessible by mowing the grass less