“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!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Salvaged Bird Casualties

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dan, the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating animals in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

salvaged-bird-casualties-6x3Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata, VO 987)
Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens, VO 1968)
Common Loon (Gavia immer, VO 2076)

A number of HMNS’ bird collection specimens are salvaged by wildlife rehabilitators.  These dedicated ‘rehabbers,’ as they are known in their industry, do everything in their power to heal the sick and injured wildlife that comes into their care, with the ultimate hopes of re-releasing the individual back into the wild.  Sadly, some of the rehabbers ‘patients’ never make it back into the wild, let alone back to the holding facility, as their injury resulted in their death.

In the HMNS collection, we have three such specimens, a blue jay that choked to death on an acorn, and two less common seabirds that died from ingesting fishing hooks and tackle.  These incidents were published by HMNS staff in Bull. Tx. Orn. Soc. in 2002 (35: 11-12) and 2007 (40: 31-32), respectively.

You can see larger and more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.

Searching for Elvis, (Jim, Janice and Jimi)…

So far many of the tales I have told (all true by the way) have dealt with a common underlying theme – life through the eyes of a budding young scientist.  This is because I have hacked away at information from old camp logs and field notes from the early days in my career to bring you, the reader, vivid pictures through these stories.  The next reading is no different except that it takes place not in Latin America, but here in our own backyard, the USA; specifically, southeast Arizona. 

Approximately 15 years ago, while working in a job that involved little variation in day-to-day work, one of my co-workers, Jerry CrabbyOtis (Crabby hereafter) and I would take up the topic of bird-watching (birding), which we both enjoyed thoroughly.  He was much better at birding than I, as he had been doing it for a longer period of time than I. 

One day Crabby returned from a trip to the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona.  Before leaving for Arizona, Crabby was stressed out, malnourished, and probably had a G-I tract perforated with ulcers.  When he returned only a week or two later, it was like he had been sent to a rapid-advance rehab facility – he was relaxed, bronze-colored from the sun, and full of more excitement than you could shake a stick at!  It was as if he was a Greek leprechaun who had found a pot of gold, returning to report his quarry. 

“DAN – you gotta go to the Chiricahuas man…,” he said, trying to get my attention.  After he described the beautiful northern offshoot of Mexico’s Sierra Madre, and all of the tropical wildlife that thrived there, I decided a trip could well be in order. 

I telephoned a friend, Steve Mayes, who was also doing the daily grind and in need of a fun diversionary field trip.  Steve and I planned our trip to take place later that summer.  We charted all the hot spots for tropical wildlife (especially birds) in southeast Arizona.  This would be a great opportunity to do a little field work and collect scientific data on various topics involving animal foraging.  I had just received my Master’s degree and wanted to take a stab at designing my own experiment, independent of an experienced mentor.

Above all, we joked around about the possibility of finding Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin or Jimi Hendrix on a street in Tucson.  These talented musicians, who all met a tragic end, were the subject of urban myths, perpetuating they had moved to Tucson after becoming weary of the daily grind of a famous musician.  We knew the trip would be fun, and after all, someone once said, “Nothing is worth doing unless you are having fun.” 

As evening falls
Creative Commons License photo credit: kretyen

Searching for Elvis, (Jim, Janice and Jimi)…

August 1994
Tucson, Arizona

When we arrived in the late afternoon, worn out and exhausted from the long and grueling drive from Texas, we scouted a bit and pitched camp in this ‘foreign,’ yet beautiful, habitat.  I cautiously prepared the feeding tubes with three different concentrations of sugar water: no sugar in the control, 5% sugar and 20% sugar.  Then proceeded to hang the feeders at the same height and distance from one-another.  I was a little nervous, as this was my first ‘solo flight’ with experimental design. 

Within a few minutes of dusk approaching, several nectar-feeding Long-nosed Bats (Leptonycteris curasoae) began hitting the feeders.  Within a few minutes of that, the bats figured out which feeder was most concentrated with sugar and ignored the other two.  Risk-sensitive foraging in action!  The same pattern was observed the following morning with the hummingbirds, and within a few minutes of that the hummingbirds illustrated extreme size-mediated competition, with the larger species ousting the smaller species from the feeders.  This pattern held for each site we ran the experiment at, all at varying altitudes with a different of hummingbird community.  My experiment worked!! 

Elegant Trogon
Creative Commons License photo credit: dominic sherony

That first morning at Sunny Flats, we set out to see what wildlife we could see in this semi-mesic Oak forest surrounded by low-lying desert.  One of the first birds we saw was one of the primary target species – a female Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans) feeding her youngster.  Shortly thereafter we saw a mixed flock comprised of three Bridled Titmice (Parus wollweberi), two Yellow Warblers (Dendroica petechia) and a Painted Redstart (Myioborus pictus), with the latter being the alarm-calling sentinel, warning the other birds of our presence.  We even saw a lone male Coati (Nasua narica) on the way back to camp, rooting around in the understory. 

Things like the trogons, coatis, and other Neotropical species we saw are difficult to impossible to view in other regions of the the U.S., so being able to see these tropical species in this region was a genuine thrill!

One of several other sites we visited was a Nature Conservancy property called Ramsey Canyon.  Within a few minutes of leaving the truck, we saw a sow and half grown cub cinnamon-phased Black Bear (Ursus americanus) strolling leisurely at the bottom of a hill, perhaps 100 yards or less from where we stood.  I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand.  It was Ramsey Canyon where we hoped to see the Eared Quetzal (or Trogon, Euptilotis neoxenus).  After spending several hours hiking up mountainsides into appropriate habitat where we might encounter the bird, we struck out and finally threw in the towel a little before dusk.  We were juiced to continue our long and grueling hike, as we thought (?) we heard vocalizations, which drove us to continue on our quest for this cryptic species.

Black Bears ended up being somewhat common in southeast Arizona.  In fact, we found several piles of fresh bear dung, full of the berries that were in full bloom in the arid mountains of this region.  [At the time, I was very interested in ecological interactions of South American fauna and flora (as I still am today)].  One of the fascinating new findings in South America was that a carnivore, the Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), was actually an important disperser of some of the fruits it preferred to eat.  So naturally, I wanted to see if the Black Bears were dispersers or predators of the berries they consumed.  I had to bring Crabby back some sort of ‘gift’, so I figured, why not some bear feces to do germination experiments with, since he had such green thumbs after all!

Now we’re sitting on a bench in an urban park, catching our breath after playing Frisbee, and getting caught up on the field notes.  We have looked high and low for Band-tailed Pigeons (Patagioenas fasciata) with no luck, despite being the right time of year to catch a glimpse.  Steve was relaxing, contemplating his surroundings, as he often does.  Then he looks over at me calmly, hits my arm to get my attention, and upon doing so just holds his hand with his index finger pointing towards the sky.  Following his directions, I see a resting Band-tailed Pigeon perched just a few feet over our heads.

Post-log (12 January 2009):Well, Crabby’s bear dung never germinated any sprouts of a plant despite his green thumbs, which told us the bears are actually seed predators in this case.  The lesson learned with the Band-tailed Pigeon has again and again provided some of the most obvious answers to some of the most daunting tasks or questions I have encountered in life thus far.  That is, that the answers are often right in front of our faces, if we can just slow down long enough to ‘see’ them.  I have remembered this hilarious moment of the Band-tailed Pigeon perched over our heads, yet have found it to be so true in tackling research questions, dealing with crazy personalities, and other formats of problem solving – the solution is often right in front of you.  Even though we never met up with Elvis, Jim, Janice or Jimi, I could have sworn I caught a fleeting glimpse of one, or the other, out of the corner of my eye on several occasions.

My love affair with the tropics (how and why I became a biologist)

 Our fearless leader
Dr. Larry Gilbert

My introduction to the tropics was in the summer of 1983, when I lucked into accompanying Dr. Larry Gilbert (UT Zoology) and his students on a field course to Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.  Not being a student at the time (I’d gotten a BA in linguistics a couple years before but was working as a secretary on the UT campus), but having some proficiency in Spanish, I was hired by Dr. Gilbert as his assistant and translator since his regular teaching assistant was off making a film in New Guinea. 

After several weeks in Patterson Hall on the UT campus, translating documents and readying equipment, we left for Costa Rica, flying into the capitol, San Jose.  Here our party (5 graduate students plus Dr. Gilbert – Larry to his students – and myself) spent a couple of days at the “Costa Rica Inn” – a rambling one-story labyrinth of a hotel near the downtown area.  San Jose is a typical Central American city, with lots of traffic and pollution, no interesting architecture to speak of…but great ice cream and plenty of activity – and in those days, very safe at all hours.  We visited the Natural History Museum and the local university, picked up some supplies (foam mattresses and rum are what I remember!), and made our flight arrangements.  We were flying in to the park in two 5-seater Cessnas; there was no other access to the remote field site location. 

View of the Corcovado canopy from the plane.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The day arrived and we boarded the tiny planes.  I was quite nervous as I had never flown in such a small plane before, and the pilot warned us that it might be a bumpy ride due to rising air currents as we crossed the mountains.  And Larry joked about the two wrecked planes that decorated the end of the airstrip in the park… 

The flight took about an hour, and it was indeed turbulent.  Finally we flew out over the Osa Peninsula and saw nothing but forest below us, and then the Pacific Ocean beyond. We suddenly turned at right angles to the coastline to land at a tiny airstrip cleared in the rainforest, ending at the beach…and there, indeed, were the two wrecks.  Welcome to Sirena Station of Corcovado National Park!

We pitched tents in the clearing/horse pasture behind the rustic park station building; this would be our home for the next six weeks.  The students included Darlyne, studying heliconius butterflies; Kirk, studying the fish communities in freshwater streams; Jamie, studying howler monkeys, and Peggy and John, new students who had not yet decided on projects.  Two senior students, Peng Chai and Sue Boinski, were already in the park.  Peng was studying bird predation on butterflies.  “Bo” as she was called, was the equivalent of a mountain man, in my somewhat awed view.  She had spent the past several years following troupes of squirrel monkeys to learn about their behavior and mating habits, sometimes staying in the park for over a year at a stretch. In the course of her wanderings she had dodged fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes, and had some (very shaky) video footage of a pair of jaguars lazily playing together, oblivious of their nervous human watcher. 

Fruits of the
Corcovado rainforest.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The Sirena station was a bustling place.  Since in those days (before the gold miner crisis of 1985) it served as the park headquarters, it was the central point in Corcovado for communications and supplies, which were all brought in by plane.  The park director was stationed here, along with about 5-6 park guards.  Other park guards travelling by horseback from the outlying stations came in to pick up their allotment of supplies, or to rotate out for a week’s holiday.  The radio crackled all day long:  “Sierra Papa Norte Dos a Sierra Papa Norte” (National Park Service station 2 to headquarters).  I learned all sorts of things in radio lingo – “Cambio” meant over, “Dos” meant good, “Dos y medio” was so-so, “Tres” meant bad, “un 22” was a telephone call, “10” was crazy, etc. 

The station in those days was rustic.  Electricity was provided by generator only at lunchtime and for a couple hours in the evening.  Running water was ingeniously piped in from a nearby stream.  Course participants and park guards all ate together in a little open-sided building:  generous portions of rice and beans, smaller portions of meat and vegetables, inventive desserts, and drinks made from fresh tropical fruits, all deliciously prepared by Maria, the feisty and attractive cook.

Buttress of a tropical giant.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The first few days Larry led his students and me on long, sometimes wild walks through the forest – up over the steep knife-edged ridges, crashing down through stream beds, slogging along the beach or sweltering through open areas.  What an amazing place!  I was in love with the forest from the moment I saw it.  So many plants – so many insects, birds, monkeys, frogs, snakes, etc.  But especially plants.  It was like being in the most amazing botanical garden.  Here things I’d only seen as houseplants grew rampantly everywhere.  Ferns were not just ferns but trees.  And trees, with their huge buttresses as big around as a house, towered into the canopy.

Squirrel Monkies are common
near Sirena

After a week or so of our introductory walks, the students settled down to their research projects.  Since I wasn’t a student and didn’t have my own project, I helped some of the others where I could.  I soon was spending most of my time with Kirk, helping him census the fish in the many small streams that cut across the peninsula – streams so clear and clean that we drank out of them.  I learned a lot about fish that summer!  At night, we all sat in the little screened porch behind the radio room, burning candles and mosquito coils while we read or wrote up our field notes, or listened to one of the students give a status report on his or her project.  Larry often regaled us with funny stories of his past students…considerably embellished over the years, I am sure!

 Tropical leaf-footed bug

All too soon the summer came to an end, and we had to leave the park and head back to Texas to begin the new semester.  We packed the tents and our supplies into coolers to keep out the mildew.  Said our goodbyes to the park guards and to Maria.  Cleaned up the area we had taken over as our evening “lab.”  While we waited for the planes to arrive I took a last walk up the Claro trail to a ridge where, sitting on the buttress root of a huge strangler fig, I could see over the forest and out to sea.  What an adventure it had been!  What a lot of amazing biology I had learned!  Nostalgia for the place swept over me – but I heard the drone of the plane and had to rush back to camp.  We boarded the Cessna, and as it rumbled down the bumpy airstrip and began to lift into the air, I thought – if the plane crashes on the way back, I will die happy.  I have just spent the most amazing summer of my life.

I ended up becoming one of Larry’s students and spending several more summers in the park and elsewhere in the tropics.  However, that first experience stays with me as one of the real highlights of my existence on this earth. 

 Ornate flower of a tropical passionvine
 Red-eyed treefrogs.