Originally created 12/13/04

Airport, wildlife benefit from work of 'Bird Lady'



What may sound like a tame, yet interactive safari is actually Tina Rhodes' job at Augusta Regional Airport.

The "Bird Lady," as Airport Director Buster Boshears lightheartedly refers to her, rides around the airport's perimeter each day looking for birds and other animals and then chasing them off if they're on or near the runways.

It's work she says she enjoys not only because of her love for animals but also because of the needed aid she provides the pilots and airlines.

"My favorite part is when I see a bird on the runway and clear it off. It saves the bird, and it saves the airlines millions of dollars," Ms. Rhodes said. "We're not just chasing off birds for no reason."

Her companion on the drives is Mayday, a 7-year-old border collie the airport purchased from a breeder at the same time Ms. Rhodes was picked for the job four years ago.

Together, Mayday and Ms. Rhodes patrol the area twice daily. In some cases, she sounds a siren to scare off the birds, and other times Mayday runs after them and then returns at the sound of a whistle.

Either way, the animals are neither killed nor harmed; they're simply rerouted away from the planes.

At this time of year, birds are scarce. But during spring and summer, hundreds of meadowlarks, killdeer, crows and even eagles converge on Augusta Regional's grounds.

Ms. Rhodes also has to deal with stray dogs often found near Lock and Dam Road, deer that hop some of the lower fences and even a family of coyotes that manages to get through or under the fences.

"The airport doesn't have a major problem, but we do have animals," she said, noting that a lot of the birds fly over from Phinizy Swamp.

Before Ms. Rhodes, airport firefighters would take turns riding around the land in search of birds. In 2000, then-interim Director Tim Weegar decided that saving planes from bird strikes was a large enough concern to hire someone full time to manage wildlife.

Ms. Rhodes, who had been working as an airport receptionist for nine years, was selected.

Because she had no one from whom to learn the job, the Augusta native taught herself by reading books about birds and getting first hand knowledge of Augusta's wildlife.

She also has attended annual USA Bird Strike Commission meetings to compare notes with employees at other airports with her duties. And in fall 2005, she's hoping to become certified in wildlife management through the American Association of Airport Executives' new program

"Now I'm fascinated by birds," Ms. Rhodes said. "If I see a new bird I don't recognize, I'll grab a book and look it up."

Tina Rhodes

AGE: 43

JOB: Wildlife management for Augusta Regional Airport

FAMILY: Husband, two daughters, three grandchildren

HOMETOWN: Augusta

QUOTE: "My favorite part is when I see a bird clear off. It saves the bird, and it saves the airlines millions of dollars. ... We're not just chasing off birds for no reason."

Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339 or dena.levitz@augustachronicle.com.