As investigators continue to probe an Air France crash in the Atlantic Ocean, US officials are looking into a January bird strike on US Airways Flight 1549. The jet collided with a flock of geese shortly after take off from New York City. The dramatic landing in the Hudson River by Captain "Sully" Sullenberger saved all 155 people on board. Now scientists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington have identified the birds responsible.
Canadian geese to blame
Scientists have examined the feather remains from the engines of US Airways Flight 1549 and determined that migrating Canadian geese are to blame.
Thousands of bird strikes happen each year in the United States, costing the airlines billions of dollars and putting passengers at risk.
Carla Dove is a forensic ornithologist in the Smithsonian's Feather Identification Lab. It is her job to identify the species that are sucked into aircraft engines.
"The information we provide on species identification allows engineers to determine the weights of birds," Dove said. "So when they design a new engine they take into account the weights of the bird that are ingested into these engines."
Dove says Canadian geese weigh on average 3.6 kilograms (eight pounds), but that the average engine is designed only to withstand a bird half that size.
Solution includes redesigning engines
Just as windshields have been redesigned to withstand bird impacts, Dove says engines might also need to be redesigned, though refitting them is a costly undertaking.
Peter Marra works at Smithsonian's Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo. He analyzed the feathers to determine if the geese were resident or migratory.
Marra says a cold snap in January blanketed the New York region in snow and likely played a factor in the geese's movement, putting them on a collision course with Flight 1549.
"What you need to realize is that Canada geese are essentially flying cows and they are grazers," Marra said. "They depend on open grassy fields to feed and forage, and when that area gets covered in snow they're forced to move."
He says officials will need to prevent such interference by using more sophisticated radar and doing more research on where the billions of birds are going during their migrations.
"With bird strikes, there's actually information that's contained in these feathers that's sort of akin to the black box voice recorder that we can use to try to inform flying in the future to minimize probability of these bird strikes," he adds.
Although thousands of bird strikes occur each year, the Federal Aviation Administration does not require airlines to report them.