California City’s Use of Laser Pointers Gets FAA’s Attention

The city of Sunnyvale uses the tools to clear a downtown shopping and restaurant area of crows, but the FAA cautions the town about the effects on aircraft and pilots.

Trying to tag an aircraft with a hand-held laser is a federal crime. [Photo: AOPA]

The challenge of removing one nuisance is that sometimes you can inadvertently create another. 

In Sunnyvale, California, city officials have been employing the use of lasers to dissipate a crow population. Not surprisingly to those who follow aviation, this got the attention of the FAA, which has seen a rash of incidents in which laser pointers have caused havoc for pilots in recent years. 

The laser deterrent is being used in a two-block area in the downtown known as Plaza del Sol, said Jennifer Garnett, communications officer for the city of Sunnyvale.

"Plaza del Sol is an open plaza bordered by trees and mixed-use buildings across from the Sunnyvale Caltrain Station,” Garnett said. “The adjacent block is our historic Murphy Avenue; this tree-lined street has many restaurants and businesses. There is more outdoor dining at these locations because of the pandemic, which has likely attracted the crows.

The city of Sunnyvale has used lasers to remove crows from a two-block area known as "Plaza Del Sol"

"The crows are very noisy, and their droppings and feathers have created quite a mess,” she added. “Our council members have received many complaints from residents and businesses. We also have had to increase our frequency of pressure washing both areas to clean the mess.

"Our mayor suggested the laser pointer based on research he had done. We reviewed information from credible sources like the Humane Society, which indicated laser pointers were a humane and viable approach. We decided it was a fairly easy, low-cost solution to try as a short-term pilot. The goal is to deter the crows from these areas."

The idea seemed easy enough, but after a local media outlet incorrectly reported that laser pointers were going to be issued to citizens for the crow eradication effort, the FAA became involved. 

Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein received a letter from FAA regional administrator Raquel Girvin with a reminder to the mayor: "Sunnyvale is in close proximity to four busy airports: Mineta San Jose International, Moffett Field, Palo Alto, and San Carlos. Arriving and departing aircraft operate at relatively low altitudes over Sunnyvale’s airspace."

The letter continued, "Lasers are an aviation safety hazard to flight crews. Lasers may blind a pilot. Our office alone receives approximately one laser complaint daily solely regarding hazards to flight crews. These investigations not only concern the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but typically also involve local law enforcement and at times, the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Distribution of lasers to residents may lead to a proliferation of laser incidents against flight crews."

The letter went on to encourage the city to find another means of dispersing the birds.

But Garnett said the city has researched and tried other methods to deter the birds, including hanging reflective disks in the trees and even using a trained falcon, but the results were mixed. 

And she stressed that despite news reports, laser pointers have not been distributed, nor will they be. Rather, it is one city employee using a hand-held laser pointer performing a specific task.

"Lasers are an aviation safety hazard to flight crews. Lasers may blind a pilot."

From an FAA letter to the city of Sunnyvale, California

"For about 30 minutes at dusk, our trained staff person shines the laser pointer for a few seconds at a time into the trees at the crows after they roost. This startles them and they fly off. We’ve used the single laser pointer each night, Monday-Friday. We started the pilot program on Jan. 24 and intend to stop at some point this week. In addition to the laser pointer, we have also placed a couple of fake crow effigies and hung reflective disks in the trees, and we have played a CD with sounds that are supposed to deter the crows."

Garnett added that Sunnyvale director of Public Works, Chip Taylor, has communicated with the FAA  about the use of the laser pointer. 

"Using the laser pointer is not prohibited, but we need to be aware of not shining it at aircraft, which we are not doing," she stated. "Our staff person has been trained to only shine the laser pointer into the trees. They have also been trained to avoid any nearby aircraft and people."

The laser pointer does seem to be working, Garnett said, adding, "However, we know that the crows are very smart and are likely to return when the deterrent goes away."

In the meantime, the FAA says it “will be closely monitoring for laser-strike reports from pilots flying around Sunnyvale during the coming months."

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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