Laura Francoeur’s Job is for the Birds (and the Terrapins)

By Alana Calmi, Media Relations Staff

Chasing Diamondback terrapins from runways and harassing geese and other birds from airport property is all in a day’s work for Laura Francoeur.

As the Port Authority’s first Chief Wildlife Biologist, Francoeur works on wildlife mitigation across the five airports owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It’s not necessarily the job many would immediately associate with maintaining safe and efficient airport operations, but her role is essential.

With 17 years at the Port Authority, Francoeur has encountered an array of wildlife issues she had never imagined. She is based at John F. Kennedy International Airport and also has oversight of Newark Liberty International Airport and LaGuardia, Teterboro and Stewart airports.

LauraKnown for being one of the busiest airports in the nation, JFK is home to a diverse ecosystem comprising various types of vegetation and the animals that thrive from them. Francoeur explains that with Jamaica Bay surrounding the airport, the area attracts an assortment of wildlife.

Every year in early summer, JFK becomes home to hundreds of Diamondback terrapins looking for a place to lay their eggs. Francoeur and her team collect the terrapins, inspect turtlethem, tag them with a small chip if they don’t already have one, and release them just outside the fencing around the airport.

While it might seem a small issue, it is in fact a potential hazard to planes traveling to and from the airport. Fencing was installed around the airport perimeter to keep the terrapins out, but many still manage to find a way in. Those that do are usually captured short of the runways.

Another issue that airports around the world face are bird strikes—from a small bird hitting a windshield to an engine ingesting a flock. There are a number of different species of birds that inhabit the areas surrounding JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty.

Assisted by Senior Wildlife Biologist Jeff Kolodzinski, Francoeur continues to develop strategies to drive birds from the airports’ airspace to avoid a strike, using a mixture of human and technological tactics. CNN profiled Port Authority bird mitigation efforts in this 2016 report:

The New York Wildlife Services established wildlife management at airports starting with JFK in 1979. Since then, the presence of wildlife at airports is constantly being addressed with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A Connecticut College graduate, Francoeur discovered her passion for wildlife through a friend of a friend who needed to borrow her typewriter to fill out an application. When Francoeur asked what the application was for, she learned it was for an internship with the Student Conservation Association. With her primary interest in wildlife damage management— the intersection of people in wildlife and the problems that ensue— the internship was an incredible opportunity to expand her understanding.

“I thought it was the coolest thing! You apply with this non-profit group and they link you up with natural resource agency internships, some with wildlife but they could also deal with archeology. I ended up working for the Bureau of Land Management,” says Francoeur.

During her internship, she inventoried springs and seeps (usually groundwater that reaches the earth’s surface) in the Vermillion Cliffs north of Phoenix, and other parts of the Bureau of Land Management’s Arizona Strip District. She also monitored vegetation and wildlife use of those areas.

She received her Master’s degree in wildlife biology from Clemson University, working on deer damage to crops. “I thought I might end up in a more agricultural setting but when I got my first job it was working at airports and landfills, and I thought the airside is really interesting – landfills, not as much,” she says.

Francoeur has played an integral part in changing wildlife policies across the airports. With technology constantly changing and improving, her teams tests different options for wildlife management. “We try to keep up with technology as it evolves. Some things that work at other airports might not be the best for us,” says Francoeur.

While LaGuardia has much less acreage, it also has less wildlife to manage compared to JFK with its nearly 5,000 acres. JFK and Newark Liberty use fencing, or grid wires, laid over larger areas of turf to keep out geese. Diamondback terrapins nesting at JFK is unique among Port Authority airports, and other U.S. airports. Countless airports have turtle issues, but none that seem to have terrapins, which are actually a species of sea turtle and different from other freshwater turtles.

Francoeur said her Port Authority experience has lived up to expectations. Having worked at a smaller airport, Richmond International, she saw the potential in moving to New York.

“I really do enjoy the work I get to do at our airports,” she said. “It’s incredible that we can run such large airports in all these different and diverse environments.”

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