Photo: Which birds bring down airplanes?

Forensic feather expert and lab founder Roxie Laybourne in one of the many rows of collections in the Smithsonian's Bird Division

Forensic feather expert and lab founder Roxie Laybourne in one of the many rows of collections in the Smithsonian's Bird Division. Image by Chip Clark, SI Photo Services

Bird strikes, as we saw from the “miracle on the Hudson,” have the potential to be extremely dangerous. While typically the result is not as catastrophic, birds and other wildlife strikes to aircraft annually cause over $600 million in damage to U.S. civil and military aviation each year. Yet in order to deal with those strikes and reduce the chances of future ones, airport authorities must know what species are being hit. That’s where the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab comes in. For instance, using the lab’s identification of species that do the most damage to their aircraft, the U.S. Air Force Bird Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) Team, gathered information about the habitats of commonly struck species, their breeding behavior, and migratory patterns. Then, they created a dynamic map of bird strike risk levels across the United States. That helps pilots avoid flying in certain areas at certain times of the year based on the concentrations of birds that are predicted to be there.

The species identifications from the lab also help airport biologists manage the habitats in such a way so as to discourage wildlife from congregating in the area. While the methods will vary depending on each unique situation, it works. For example, JFK International Airport in New York has reduced the number of gull strikes by roughly 80 percent by using tactics such as grass management, eliminating standing water, and frightening birds with pyrotechnics. All that is possible once you know the species you are dealing with.

Marcy Heacker is a research assistant with the Smithsonian Institution’s feather identification lab in Washington, D.C. She received her Masters of Science and Bachelors of Science in Biology at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. She also holds an Associate’s Degree in Veterinary Technology from Columbus State College in Columbus, OH. The main focus of Marcy’s work is in avian species identification from microscopic and whole feather characters. This specialized work in wildlife forensics is particularly important for aviation industry personnel that deal with civil and military bird strikes. This feather identification service has lead to collaborations with scientists in the fields of aviation safety, wildlife biology, anthropology, and law enforcement. Marcy’s current research is on the feather microstructure of the ducks, geese, and swans.

Read the interview with Marcy Heacker

Author: Mongabay

Share This Post On