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Feather Forensics Prevent Aviation Accidents

  • Rosanne Skirble

Minutes after U.S. Airways flight 1549 took off from New York’s La Guardia Airport in 2009, pilot Chesley Sullenberger radioed the control tower:

"This is cactus 15-49, hit birds, lost thrust in both engines returning back towards La Guardia.”

Sullenberger had few options and made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. The passengers and crew were evacuated safely. The plane had hit a flock of Canada geese.

“The Canada goose is a beautiful bird. I love birds, but there is a place for birds and there’s a place not for birds and you do not want birds around the airfield, especially large-bodied birds,” said Carla Dove, director of the Bird Identification Lab at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

It was Dove who identified the birds that brought down Flight 1549. As director of the Bird Identification Lab, she manages a reference collection of 620,000 bird specimens housed in floor to ceiling cabinets on the sixth floor of the museum.

“[The collection] is about 150 years old," Dove said. "We probably have about 85 percent of the diversity of birds of the world represented here. So there are 10,000 species. We have about 8,500 in our collection.”

Feathers and debris scraped from airplane windscreens or wiped on a paper towel from the inside of an engine arrive here in plastic zipped bags, which Dove sorts through each morning.

Each year, the lab analyzes some 10,000 cases. A Canada Goose, like those in the bird species collection at the Smithsonian, brought down an airplane in New York in 2009. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)

A Canada Goose, like those in the bird species collection at the Smithsonian, brought down an airplane in New York in 2009. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)

“We are the only full-time lab that is dedicated to bird-strike identification," Dove said. "We receive feathers from all over the world, from military bases, commercial airfields As long as that material comes from an American aircraft or lands in an airport where American aircraft land, we will accept that under our FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] contract for identification.”

In one day’s mail she’s sorts through feathers connected to an incident with an Air Force plane over Niagara Falls, New York, in July.

“So we open these up. We can already see that we have some color and some pattern here," Dove said. "These are very beautiful feathers…This is a small bird. This is a tail feather from a small bird. So I have an idea of what I think it is.”

Dove immediately turns to the cabinets behind her, pulls out a bird from one of the drawers and matches the feathers.

“Bird-strike solved," she said. "This is an American Kestrel.

But it is not always so easy, even with 20 years on the job. Sometimes, Dove must look for clues in the feather structure under the microscope. She compares what she sees with a reference collection of micro slides for a positive match. And, if she has only tiny bits and pieces to go on, Dove turns to another tool for analysis.

“We have a DNA library that we match up with our own sequences to the Barcode of Life library," Dove said. "Part of that library was made from specimens from this collection, from the tissue samples that we have stored from our specimens.”

DNA analysis has improved the ability to identify the species in bird-strikes by nearly 30 percent over pre-DNA years. Dove says knowing the bird culprit is the first step in addressing the problem.

“Once you know what the birds are, the wildlife biologist will make recommendations to the airfields and the airports," she said. "The engineers will take data on the weights of the birds and they will use that when they design new engines and new aircraft parts to make those parts withstand certain bird parts at certain speeds.”

Dove says with more flights than ever before and an increase in birds in the sky there is certain to be more collisions. However, her hope is that identifying the species will lead to changes in management that can save lives and property.

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