“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!

Night at the Museum 2 wages war on IMAX – opening today!

One of the many duties of the Chief Projectionist is to assemble films.  Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, like the first film, is 32 separate reels.  Each reel is carefully wound to the projection system reel unit, which can take 8 – 10 minutes at a time.  Every reel is numbered to indicate the sequence which is first and which is last.  It takes time and a lot of patience to put together an IMAX film

This particular “Hollywood” film only took 5 hours to assemble.  Once the film is complete, then one must check their work, which is a stressful moment when assembling a film.  You can say that those in the digital world do not have this duty, more like click and drop.   The art of splicing remains at HMNS, the “reel” thing. 

Night at the Museum: Battle of the SmithsonianNight at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian has more animals, more action, more characters and a lot more laughs, which HMNS is proud to present to IMAX enthusiasts. After assembling the 32 reel; 105 minute movie, I became engulfed in this enjoyable adventure.  Since the film took place in the Smithsonian, a few key artifacts from history make an appearance as well.  Artifacts such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Archie Bunker’s chair, Muhammad Ali’s boxing robe, and notable works of art play a role in the film.  Oh, and for you younger teens, the Jonas Brothers make a notable cameo too.  So you could say that this movie has it all.
 
I would hope that museum visitors will sit in this IMAX experience and become as enthralled as I did.  I would also encourage the visitors to stroll through our exhibit halls after the film if they can and see a bit of history and science, which includes an exhibition of one of the characters in the film, Genghis Khan
 
If Fox studios and director Shawn Levy plan to make a third installment of Night at the Museum, I would definitely nominate HMNS for Larry Daley’s next adventure.  
  
Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian opens today! 

Science Doesn’t Sleep (7.14.08)

beeker in the sky with diamonds
They miss you, too.
Creative Commons License photo credit: jenlight

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Miss the Muppets? Check out Jim Henson’s Fantastic World - a new exhibit at the Smithsonian.  

A Japanese team is developing a device that could enable you to hold a 3D image in the palm of your hand.

If you decide to “sleep on” a big decision – you’re doing yourself a favor. Sleep can have a lasting effect on brain function.

Would you wear a caterpillar watch? What if it told time by crawling around your wrist ?

Why do we need a study telling us that people catch the flu in winter? To prove it. Popular Science points out how and why science confirms the obvious.

Can’t tell transition metals from inert elements? Scientist vloggers are posting a Periodic Table of Video on YouTube – short clips that illustrate and explain each element.