Written by Robert Wellborn.

There is nothing more beautiful than a bird in flight, as it seems to glide effortlessly through the air. Whether it’s above a forest, in the mountains or above a beach, they are always there adding beauty to the surrounding scenery.

Birds near an airport, however, can be another story.

Birds and other animals on, or near airports can pose a serious safety hazard to airport operations.  We have seen many instances where aircraft have been struck by birds as they take off or land none more noteworthy than US Airways flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson River after a multiple bird strike incident caused the Airbus 320 to lose both engines shortly after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009.

Airports today have many ways of dealing with birds in the area.  While most airports use noise making equipment to chase the animals away,  one airport in Northern Michigan has gone “old school” to keep their runways safe.

Meet Piper, an 8-year-old Border Collie who serves as a wildlife control K9 at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan (TVC/ KTVC). Brian Edwards, Piper’s owner, and handler joined the TVC team in 2008; and, as one of 6 Airport Operations Supervisors at the airport is responsible for a number of items from issues at the terminal, to broken runways lights as well as runway safety.

In the summer of 2014, Brian approached the airport about trying Piper out as a method of keeping birds and other animals off the airport.  Brian had seen where Southwest Florida Regional Airport in Ft. Myers, Florida had employed a dog for this purpose back in 1999 and it had been effective. After the trial run to see if Piper could do it and a great deal of paperwork, Piper and Brian officially became the Cherry Capital K9 Team in January 2015.

A typical duty day for Piper and Brian starts in the Airport Operations office where Brian checks in on his other items and duties as part of his job.  Then, several times during the day, Brian will suit Piper up in his vest donated by a former navy seal, his earmuffs, and his REX Specs.  These are fully UV protected goggles that Piper wears while on duty that keeps grass, dirt and other debris out of his eyes.  

Once geared up, they jump in their vehicle for a trip out to the runway areas.  Once on scene, Piper will sweep the area looking for birds, rodents and any other animals that could present a danger to aircraft.  On my visit this summer, we watched Piper patrol the grassy areas along the airport’s 6500-foot long runway 10/28.

After receiving a couple of commands, he immediately sat at attention as a Delta Air Lines Boeing 717 taxied past us after arriving from the Twin Cities.  After another command from Brian, Piper resumed his patrol.  “We see a lot of birds during the migration seasons (Fall and Spring) such as ducks, geese, and seagulls…we also see a lot of the Snow Owls in the winter.  He (Piper) loves chasing anything.

Border Collies are working dogs so doing this type of thing is in their blood.”  Other animals that Piper has come in contact with at the airport are Coyotes, Foxes and various rodents.  “We don’t have much of a problem with deer due to the fences but we patrol outside the fences as well.  We work off a Prey/Predator relationship here.  We want the wildlife in the area to know that there is a “predator” here and a lot of times that works better than noisemakers, bangers, and other non-lethal suppression methods”.

During the winter months and during summers when the temperatures occasionally get into the 90s, Brian limits Piper’s patrols so as not to expose him to extreme cold or heat.  Piper also stays indoors during rainy weather due to the dangers of lightning in the area.  

TVC is located some 240 miles NW of Detroit and approximately 120 miles east of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The airport serves Chicago (ORD) and Detroit (DTW) daily year round with American Eagle, Delta, Delta Connection and United Express providing the links.  

During the busy tourist season, however, additional flights are added to include nonstop flights to New York (LGA and EWR), Atlanta, Denver and Minneapolis / St Paul. Regional Jets provide a lot of the movements; however, Delta does operate the Boeing 717 and Airbus 320 into the airport during the summer season.  

Over the past few months, word has gotten out about Piper and his work. Over the winter, the Cherry Capital K9 Team were featured on the Fox News Channel, The Weather Channel and most recently on the CBS Evening News as well as the local news channels.

Piper is also very popular with the United States Coast Guard Air Station which is also located at the TVC airport.  He can be seen patrolling the areas in full uniform near the USCG hangars as the MH-65 Dauphin Helicopters leave or arrive after their patrols over Lake Michigan.

He also visits with the US Navy Blue Angels team when they make their annual visit to TVC. All of this can be seen via the Facebook/Instagram Pages Brian started back in September 2015.

At present, the Cherry Capital K9 Team has some 15,000 likes on Facebook and almost 44,000 followers on Instagram. This past July, Piper was given the honor of serving as the Grand Marshall in the National Cherry Festival’s Cherry Royale Parade. “It’s never been about being popular to us,” Brian says. ” I just enjoy being able to go to work with my dog every day”.

They are unique in that TVC is only one of a few airports using dogs as wildlife suppressors and in this case, Piper is the only dog that isn’t owned by the airport. At the end of the duty day, Piper goes home with Brian to enjoy a park, a beach or a quiet evening at home.  

So,  if you find yourself visiting Northern Michigan and your travels take you to the Traverse City area, be sure to look out the window for Piper as he stands to watch over the gateway to the Great Lakes.