“Bird-Airplane” Collisions and Forensic Ornithology

The New York Times recently published an article, Trafficking in Contraband that Sings, on birds from Guyana that were being smuggled into the US for singing competitions. Strangely enough, these competitions are judged by humans and not by female birds. The part of the article that intrigued me the most, however, also aired on NPR, about the Forensic Ornithologist (Dr. Train) called upon to testify in court regarding these birds. This was a field of science new to me and, curiosity piqued, I did a little research.

Forensic Ornithology has been used in a variety of ways and with a variety of methods including DNA or by “eyeballing” the species. Experts in the field have been called upon to help solve such problems as bird-airplane collisions, homicide investigations, and endangered species’ poaching cases. It is an interesting field of study where you have to incorporate a lot of information on feather structure, bird bones and even DNA.

Credit: NASA

In the wrong place at the wrong time, a bird is silhouetted against the clear blue Florida sky (upper left) as it falls away from Space Shuttle Discovery after hitting the external tank during liftoff of mission STS-114 in July 2005. Credit: NASA

Take bird-airplane collisions like the Hudson River Landing. By knowing which bird(s) collided with the airplane, a management plan for that bird species can be made to prevent such collisions in the future. (As an aside, is it really fair to put the bird first in “bird-airplane collision”? Or what about “Bird hits External Tank during Shuttle Launch”? As if the bird was the one traveling with boosters strapped to its keel.)

All kidding aside, analysis of the bird remains can help focus on which species may need management. Leading to alternate aircraft routes during peak bird activity to avoid potential collisions, using bird radar to track flocks of birds such as NASA uses and even sound cannons strategically placed to keep birds out of the aircraft’s flight path.

So where does one go to have birds or their remains identified? If it is a larger sample, the Museum’s very own collection can help. Dr. Dan Brooks, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, has identified parts of birds for museums and the USF&WS (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) to ascertain whether or not it was a species listed as Threatened, Endangered or CITES. He has also used the collection (and his own vast knowledge) to identify feathers in Indigenous people’s ornaments, including the “Ice Queen” mummy of National Geographic fame. Pretty cool! For the high-tech study of bits and pieces used as evidence in court cases, professionals usually turn to the NMNH’s Feather Identification Lab.

 black vultures
Creative Commons License photo credit: ljmacphee

In another article by the NY Times, the initial forensic analysis performed by the Lab of the remains collected from a collision produced deer DNA. That seemed odd, since the collision took place at 1500 feet. Analysis of a feather sample that was also collected identified the bird as a Black Vulture, evidently with deer remains in it’s stomach. Science is awesome!

Here is a link to NPR’s interview “The Tale of a Bird Detective.” So turn up your speakers and learn something new today!

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