News / Science & Technology

Feather Forensics Prevent Aviation Accidents

Feather Forensics Help Prevent Aviation Accidentsi
X
August 29, 2013 6:47 PM
Birds are a significant threat to aircraft, especially at take-off or low altitudes. The collisions - almost always fatal for the bird - can cause property damage and occasional loss of human life. While the majority of bird strikes go unreported, those 8,000 to 10,000 that are reported each year are largely investigated by a forensic team at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the story.
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.
Feather Forensics Prevents Aviation Accidents
Feather Forensics Prevents Aviation Accidentsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

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)
x
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.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
August 29, 2013 10:34 PM
There is a place for birds to fly and not to fly. Umm, what shoud I say? Birds have rights to fly anywhere around the world, do not they? Anyway, we should help birds keep away from air ports and flight routes.
In Response

by: Jimmy from: Canada
September 03, 2013 7:52 AM
Logically it is absolutely right that birds instead of planes have the natural right of flying, but things become complex when emotion comes in. It would be really hard to confess that it is our fault when our family or friends were lost in an collision, while it is so easy to blame those birds who are not able to defend themselves by words.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs