A Walnut vs. a Coconut

One pilot's struggle with Mother Nemesis

May 1, 2004

The average human has a miraculously sophisticated brain the size of a coconut, weighing about three pounds and capable of the most profound logical reasoning. (Admittedly, the pilot who owns and tries to maintain a personal airplane in the face of the innumerable obstacles and the sundry related financial charges, any one of which would stun a Mafia loan shark, must possess a brain that is somewhat less substantial than the average, although still certainly almost as intelligent as your typical Gateway desktop.)

In contrast, the average bird has a brain no bigger than a walnut, weighing maybe an ounce or so, most of which must be dedicated to aerobatics, chirping the same thing over and over, looking early for worms, and remembering to defecate every 15 seconds.

So when a bird chooses to match wits with a human pilot, it should be no contest, right?

A walnut vs. a coconut.

The bird ought to lose.

The Martha Stewart of birds one day decided to set up housekeeping in my venerable Cessna 172. She pecked and pried her way past a $50 air-intake cover — an adjustable fabric-mesh-and-Velcro rig that was touted to discourage everything short of Texas vultures — and began industriously constructing her nest, one twig at a time, on my number-two cylinder. I cleaned off the cylinder, readjusted the cover, and on the advice of a fellow pilot (who has enough sense to rent all of his aerial rides), I set up two scowling realistic owls, fiercely yellow-eyed and dressed with real feathers that fluffed in the breeze. I put one atop the prop and one on the storage box in my open T-hangar.

It looked like mail day at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School, I thought gleefully.

That lasted three days. The prop owl became a convenient construction perch for what I'd come to consider my "nemesis bird."

I'll fix that, I thought. I took two of those CDs that are constantly arriving in my junk mail, placed them back to back so the labels didn't show, and dangled them from a hangar rafter on monofilament line to twist and flash nicely 6 inches above the prop owl.

I noticed that those hangar rafters, by the way, made excellent perching places, as evidenced by the uncountable white streaks down the sides and the several dozen splatter deposits distributed on my Cessna's polished paintwork. I rolled the airplane out, went home and got a ladder, paid a visit to the local hardware store, and strung 50-pound-test monofilament line 2 inches above every rafter and truss member in the hangar, stretching the monofilament taut on big nails partially driven into the wood, ingeniously denying landing places to the nemesis bird, her ne'er-do-well boyfriends, and her whole damn flock of relatives. I cleaned off the number-two cylinder, washed the splatters off the paint, readjusted and tightened the cowling cover, and bragged about my fishing-line anti-perching engineering project to several airport bums loitering around the FBO.

They mostly just grinned and made comments like, "Yeah. Sure. Hey, nice try."

A rubber snake didn't work either, at least on the birds. It only attracted a curiosity ring of little dusty, forked bird footprints around it.

The snake, however, did frighten my wife half to death.

"Mothballs," a friend said. "The little buggers absolutely can't stand the smell of mothballs."

So, after cleaning tidy little hay couches off of two cylinders, I placed a cloth pouch full of mothballs on a baffle just inside the air intake, right behind the fancy $50 cover.

"Whew," my wife said that night when I tried to kiss her. "You smell like mothballs."

There seemed to be somewhat fewer splatters on the paintwork over the next few days, I noticed, but from a distance the Cessna still looked like it was polka-dotted. The bird and her friends and family were no longer perching on the rafters above the airplane as far as I could tell, but I realized they must still be flying through my airspace on their way to and from other unfortunate airplanes hangared along the other side of the building.

After another trip to the hardware store, I spent a day stapling up sheets of half-inch-square plastic-mesh screening vertically around the entire upper rear of my hangar, all the way to the roof, effectively creating a no-fly zone, at least concerning the back side of the hangar.

"You missed a couple of places there." It was my hangar neighbor, kibitzing. "Those holes you left, they'll zip right through there once they spot them," he said. "You gotta think like a bird if you're gonna beat 'em."

"But the average bird," I said, "only has a brain the size of a...never mind."

He proudly showed me his recent defensive solution, a flat cruciform structure of latticework covered with heavy plastic tarps, mounted on the rafters above his Aircoupe. I could see how it might thwart the high-altitude bomber birds, but his airplane was still vulnerable to the low-level fly-through strafers — the buzz birds.

"Yeah. Sure," I said. "Hey, nice try."

By now the airport gossips were finding my plight more entertaining than a Rod Machado seminar. I was beginning to feel like Wiley E. Coyote.

I went online and found the telephone number for an expert bird-control guy.

"Well, you got your black-box electronic howlers," he said, "but they're pretty expensive. There's your mechanical screech owl. We got a special on them. It swivels in the wind and lets out a screech from the metal base. Birds can't stand to be anywhere near owls."

"Not my bird," I said. "My bird would take on a live Schwarzenegger screech owl armed with a machine gun." He carried on, "Then you got what we call your big-eye balloons; the Coast Guard buys a lot of those. But hey, if you're lookin' for a hunnert-percent protection, that's something else. Only things work a hunnert percent is a tight-closed building, or covering what you want to protect with netting. We got a special on netting."

Prices for closed hangars at my airport start at ridiculous and go on up to outrageous. And completely netting my T-hangar seemed extreme, so I ordered a 100-foot roll of 2-inch-wide iridescent plastic tape that was supposed to ward off birds with brilliant prismatic flashes and a crackling sound "in any breeze at all." I stapled a few lengths of it to the rafters to hang down within inches of my airplane.

A week later I arrived at my hangar with a friend, anticipating a pleasant flight to take some photos. The nemesis bird had once again wiggled her way beneath the prop owl, past the air-intake cover, over the mothball bag, and through wadded-up rags that I had stuffed inside, and had proceeded to thickly cover my engine with straw, bits of plastic, scraps of cloth, and even a few cigarette butts. I assume she considered it cleverly efficient recycling.

Trying to keep from going cardinal-scarlet in the face accompanied by whistling coconut steam erupting from my ears, I removed the entire cowling and we spent an hour and a half working with bent coat hangers to pick stuff out of the cylinder vanes.

I bought a set of tight-fitting canary-yellow foam air-intake plugs that make my Cessna look like it has a sinus condition, and I stapled a lot more hanging strips of the pretty, clattering, iridescent plastic tape to the rafters.

It seems to be working.

Incidentally the sound-and-light show during a breezy sunset is something to behold.

But I know my nemesis bird is perched in one of those trees near my hangar right now, eyeing my beautiful airplane, and slyly hatching some new nesting scheme in her tiny little walnut brain.

That's OK. I still haven't tried rap music.

Then there's always your hungry, trained attack cat....

Phil Bowie, AOPA 790561, of New Bern, North Carolina, is a freelance writer and owns a Cessna Skyhawk 172K. He has been flying for more than 22 years.