About Christine

Christine manages the live animal collection, teaches weekday dissection labs and summer camp classes, and presents Wildlife on Wheels programs. It has been said that she is "usually carrying something interesting."

“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!

Up Close and Blurry – Texas edition

In a previous blog of a similar name, I posted some animal photo puzzles along with a clue as a challenge for you. Once again, with no photography skill and some very silly clues, here are some new puzzles with one additional hint. All of these animals can be found in Texas…

photo credit: cbattan

I am the fastest of my kind,

With sharp sight tasty birds I find,

Though in Houston I may nest,

Typically you’ll find me West.


photo credit: cbattan

Meadows and forests I snuffle through,

Eating insects, grubs and roaches too,

Scaly in appearance but a mammal tried and true,

Birthing identical young numbering two and two.


photo credit: cbattan

Small but fleet and utterly fine,

On crabs and fish I like to dine,

TEDs keep me out of shrimp net clutches,

I nest in arribadas, i.e. bunches.


photo credit: cbattan

Medium in size though my range is statewide,

Found all through Texas and in trees I may hide,

Though my spots aren’t as dark as my brother’s,

My tail is short just like all the others.


Pinchers, stingers and claws, oh my.

Scorpion in Question
Creative Commons License photo credit: furryscaly

“How do you count scorpions?” Well, carefully is the best answer. The same can be said for any animals with either pinchers, claws, or really sharp teeth. That pretty much covers the majority of our animal collection here (except for the amphibians).

The next question that pops to mind is: why would you count scorpions? Like many institutions that maintain animal collections, an inventory is essential and often required by law. Check out this article from the Seattle Times on the London Zoo, when they were taking inventory of their collection.

While our collection is much smaller, we still have to keep proper notes and update our inventory list. It just seems a bit tedious when you are trying to count roaches. Prolific, fast-moving roaches. See how many you count in the picture below and then imagine what happens when you scare them.

Roaches! by gifninja

Aerial shots of our Roach Dome – a simulated
home environment exhibit in the Butterfly Center,
where we house numerous cockroaches for display.

This is a test…

This is a test…

And so is this…

No really – the skeleton of a sea urchin is called a test. Sea urchins are one kind of Echinoderm. And “echinoderm” is not some new spa skin treatment; it means “spiny skin” and refers to the phylum name for sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and all of their salt-water buddies.

At HMNS, we maintain a few living sea urchins in addition to the ones we have preserved for class use. If you haven’t been to the Museum lately (or maybe you have, but didn’t notice the tank), there is a salt water tank in the Grand Hall that houses the sea urchins, lightning whelks and horseshoe crabs we use in our Outreach program, Wildlife on Wheels. The sea urchins we currently have are of two kinds: Variegated or Short-spined Urchins (Lytechinus variegatus) and Pencil Urchins (Eucidaris tribuloides). While they are related, they are very different in appearance. The Short-spined looks more like a pin cushion and the Pencil Urchin looks more like pretzel sticks stuck to a ping-pong ball.

Live Short-spined Urchin

Their different appearances give us clues to their behavior and lifestyles. You will often see our Short-spined Urchin clinging to the side of the tank with shells and bits of rubble stuck to it. These urchins are more active during the daytime, and the most favored theory is that they use the small pieces of shell or rock as sun protection (like a hat to prevent excessive UV exposure.) Their spines are rather sharp and a great defense. Not that there are predators in the tank, but the horseshoe crabs have been known to roll the urchins around, sort of exploring the other occupants of the tank. We keep telling them the urchins are not toys, but they haven’t really caught on yet.

Live Pencil Urchin The Pencil Urchins move very little, so if you visit the tank on your way in and stop by on your way out, they are likely to be in the same place. They often go unnoticed in the tank. These urchins have very blunt spines (hence the “pencil,” though I’d like to see one named the Pretzel Urchin). More active at night, they spend their days holed up in rocks to avoid predators. Once they wedge themselves in, it is very difficult to remove them; far easier to move the rocks in our case.

If you want to learn more about sea urchins and their fellow echinoderms, check out your local aquarium or library!