Support our mission

RAF LAKENHEATH, England — The dominance of U.S. airpower is being challenged in the British countryside by the most asymmetrical of adversaries.

Sternus vulgaris: the starling.

Well, not just one starling.

Thousands of them, legions of noisy little birds that come to the wetlands outside RAF Lakenheath each winter to roost.

Their natural flight assets include a short tail, pointed head and triangular wings that are not quite fixed-wing and not quite rotating, offering a level of movement potentially light-years ahead of Air Force capability. Their flight is fast and direct, but they also walk and run "confidently on the ground," according to the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds.

And they don’t always coexist so well with some bigger birds in the sky, namely the 48th Fighter Wing’s F-15 jets coming and going from nearby Lakenheath. The fear is that starling swarms could get sucked into the fighter’s engines, not a good situation for either party involved.

"It makes a mess of them and the jet," said Steve Rowland, a spokesman for the RSPB, which runs a program each winter that brings in contractors, laden with firecrackers, to scare the little birds into roosting elsewhere.

The wetlands the starlings roost in, known here as a "fen," are part of a restoration project to return some of the farmland to its natural state, Rowland said.

Birds returning to the area are part of that effort, but Rowland said the RSPB also wants to be a good neighbor to the base.

"To be good neighbors, you don’t want to bring down whatever jets are flying out of Lakenheath," he pointed out.

Officials with the 48th Fighter Wing could not confirm by Stars and Stripes’ deadline Thursday the number of "bird strikes" affecting the unit’s F-15E and F-15C jets this year.

But the bird strike threat to aircraft is an "ever-present" concern, according to base spokesman Staff Sgt. Nathan Gallahan.

"The level of threat to our aircraft changes throughout the day depending on the predicted and observed bird presence on or near the airfield," Gallahan said, a potential problem that is not limited to the starling.

"The Air Force is concerned about all birds," he said.

Not everyone’s hunky-dory about the starling dispersal operations, with some nature lovers calling it some pretty fowl treatment.

Bird enthusiast John Walshe told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper this week that he witnessed contractors setting off up to 50 firecrackers in half an hour and that the resulting melee was like they were waging "World War Three."

"Volleys of fireworks were being let off and alarm calls were being played from loudspeakers," he told The Telegraph. "The starlings were upset as they were coming into roost and had nowhere else to go."

There were other casualties that day.

"In the meantime, the huge disturbance scared off a marsh harrier, 23 cormorants, bearded tits and some wildfowl," Walshe said.

Rowland said the RSPB carries out its starling operations in a "very measured way."

"We try to call it dispersal, not scaring," he said.


stars and stripes videos

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up