This Washington Post article is about a Delta Airlines flight that took off after an initial delay, before turning back again shortly after, because of a bird that managed to stowaway in the cockpit.

My questions,

  1. Would it be dangerous having the bird in the cockpit?
  2. Was the decision to turn back expected or over the top?

  3. Do Delta regulations (or relevant regulations) actually cover something this specific, or would it have been under some catch-all? If so, what would that be?

  4. Have there been any similar incidents?

  5. Does this ever happen on small private aircraft? (It's not unheard of to find a small bird sitting in your car for some reason - maybe it's the same?) Has it ever happened to anyone here, what's the outcome?

and mostly,

  1. Why didn't they just kill it?

(Aircraft kill small birds by the thousands, I mean - chicken was probably served on board.)

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    $\begingroup$ There was a case of a stowaway cat on an ultralight airplane: youtube.com/watch?v=J_8mdH20qTQ $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ I once found a mountain bluebird in my Cherokee, when I left it parked with the vent window open. Got it out before taking off, though. More common is birds nesting in the engine... $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ Another way to ask the first question is "is it as dangerous thing having a tiny dinosaur in the cockpit?" The answers kinda flow from there. $\endgroup$
    – Rich
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ If this was an international flight then there could have been issues with undocumented livestock movements. Even between states, it could transfer pathogens to an area that was previously clear. This is a high priority for an island nation. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ There's also the possibility that the bird knows more about flying than the pilots do. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 23:47

3 Answers 3


Having a small bird in a cockpit, or anywhere on board, would not be a problem during a normal flight because a normal flight should have a wide safety margin.

However, a situation can change extremely rapidly from safe-and-normal to heavy workload to full-emergency due to any number of factors, including weather, mechanical issues, airspace/congestion, etc. In a high stress situation, a small bird could be the proverbial tipping point. So I see and understand the decision to turn back.

It is remotely possible that a small bird could get somewhere it shouldn't, like behind a panel or near electrical lines and cause a short or other serious problem. Its not terribly likely, but with 100+ lives at stake, why would you risk it?

As for why they didn't just kill it: Killing it involves catching it, and catching a small bird while still flying a plane is not easy!!

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    $\begingroup$ "Killing it involves catching it, and catching a small bird while still flying a plane is not easy!!" ...and one thing you certainly don't want to do in a cockpit in flight is start flailing around trying to catch a bird which is now doing its very best to avoid you, all the while everything is moving at 700-800 km/h... $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, kill it how? With the shotgun you have under your seat? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ @DonBranson Killing a small bird once you've caught it probably isn't that difficult. Catching said bird, on the other hand... $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling - indeed. Also, remember to wash the salmonella off your hands once it's dead. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the USA has not had a commercial aviation death in the last 8 years. You don't get that kind of record by taking unnecessary chances. $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 14:46

If it's a small bird bedded down quietly under the jumpseat, I don't think I'd worry about it too much. Presuming that you found out about it while up at altitude, the question is, are you safer cruising for XX minutes to get to your destination, descend, and land, or are you safer cruising for a shorter time while you return to your departure airport, descend, and land? Either way, the bird is in the cockpit for a descent and landing somewhere, and if it seems to be quiet & unobtrusive, I don't see significant risk in the extra time at cruise.

On the other hand, if the bird is wildly flapping around & being an annoyance & a distraction, then minimizing the time that you're putting up with that would absolutely be worthwhile. Even small birds have enough beak & claws to scratch skin, and I wouldn't trust a scratch from any bird not to become a nasty infection.

I think something like this falls entirely within the realm of captain's best judgement -- I've never seen any written guidance at anything approaching the level of "consideration for a bird in the cockpit (discovered after takeoff)".

I'm also drawing a blank for anything similar in recent history, although I suspect that somebody somewhere has probably seen something pretty close. When the major U.S. airlines log multiple millions of flights each year, even the really rare cases tend to come up now & then.

As for "just kill the bird," I suspect that the hard part of that plan would be in the execution of it (the plan, and the bird too, I guess). If it's a fly buzzing around the cockpit, a good smack with the paper copy of the dispatch release will do the job, but for even a small bird, it will take more than that -- which tends to have its share of risks when wielding small improvised weapons in a confined space full of glass screens & instruments, circuit breaker panels, and another pilot whom you'd really like to avoid injuring!

It would be tempting to try to shoo the bird out of the cockpit -- either into the passenger cabin (which has its own concerns -- how long do you leave the door open waiting for the bird to fly out), or opening a cockpit window (at low altitude -- you can open them with sufficiently low pressure differential) & getting it out that way. Of course, in an MD-90, you might have just given yourself a bird strike in an engine that way, so maybe just landing to deplane the fowl passenger would be the better option!

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    $\begingroup$ They were still climbing out when they found the bird. It was only abt 20 min from takeoff to landing. If they'd found it half way through the flight (as some passengers were falsely claiming) then I could see continuing on. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ Nothing in the QRH then? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinJames No, not in the one my airline uses. Nor in the generic Boeing QRH either. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ I'm inclined to agree with @Lolgast. Also, more importantly in this case, situations that result in high pilot workload (even something relatively mundane as a bit of turbulence) appears likely to be the exact kind of situations that would upset even an otherwise calm bird, thus risking to immediately greatly increase pilot workload at an already somewhat bad time. I probably wouldn't trust it unless it can recite the safety briefing and is wearing its seatbelt correctly. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ "It would be tempting to try to shoo the bird out of the cockpit -- either into the passenger cabin (which has its own concerns -- how long do you leave the door open waiting for the bird to fly out)" Someone, somewhere, just came up with a new terrorist plot for their next movie... $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 10:38

Don't forget the fact that if they were flying to another country (or maybe the bird originated from another country) there could be issues of Bird Flu spreading around. Killing it would be very unhygienic and could spread disease etc through the air con system. Also the crew could become ill if the bird dropped its guts all over the place. Turning back to the airport would be a judgement call but most pilots would definately do it. When the workload is high the bird would also be a huge distraction and finally, if there was an incident the question would be asked "So you had a bird flying around the flight deck...why did you not RTB?"


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