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Detective Stories from the Feather Identification Lab

Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab

The Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab uses a variety of methods to identify more than 9,000 samples each year from civil and military sources. The result of their work adds to an ever-expanding database, which benefits not only aviation safety, but biologists, airfield managers, researchers and engineers designing more bird resistant aircraft systems.

Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab

The Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab uses a variety of methods to identify more than 9,000 samples each year from civil and military sources. The result of their work adds to an ever-expanding database, which benefits not only aviation safety, but biologists, airfield managers, researchers and engineers designing more bird resistant aircraft systems.

Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab

The Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab uses a variety of methods to identify more than 9,000 samples each year from civil and military sources. The result of their work adds to an ever-expanding database, which benefits not only aviation safety, but biologists, airfield managers, researchers and engineers designing more bird resistant aircraft systems.

Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab

The Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab uses a variety of methods to identify more than 9,000 samples each year from civil and military sources. The result of their work adds to an ever-expanding database, which benefits not only aviation safety, but biologists, airfield managers, researchers and engineers designing more bird resistant aircraft systems.

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. --

Check your local TV guide or program listing and take note of how many forensic shows are available. It’s an area of fascination for millions. Something about the science and technology of identifying the victim and solving the mystery with forensics draws audiences to tune in for all manners of entertainment. Picture a scene where a driver is cruising down the road, minding his own business, when suddenly he strikes a pedestrian — right there in the middle of the road. The driver pulls over, dials 911, and waits for the authorities to arrive. When the police and EMTs arrive, the initial scene is predictably chaotic. The police take the driver’s statement. “He came out of nowhere.” The unfortunate victim is definitely deceased, but has no identification with him. And so our mystery begins. Who was the victim? How did he get there? What was he doing in the middle of the road? All the questions, as you know, will be answered through forensics and neatly wrapped up by the end of the show.

But what if the driver was a pilot, and the victim was a bird — carrying no identification? How do we identify the victim? How did the victim arrive at the scene of the accident? Why is that important anyway? Believe it or not, there is a fascinating world of forensics behind each bird strike mystery. A TV series detailing the behind-the-scenes tools of bird identification may have a tough time competing in the ratings department, but for anyone who has ever collected and sent snarge to the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian Institution, the backstory is worth knowing about.

Our story would have to begin with a dramatic incident to set the scene. Let’s go with a two-ship planning a Basic Fighter Maneuvers Continuation Training sortie. Weather is 600 foot overcast with three miles visibility with light rain. Our two-ship plans for a 20-second interval takeoff. After being cleared for takeoff, the flight lead releases brakes and accelerates down the runway.Just after rotation, our pilot sees the flash of feathers, hears multiple thuds from the canopy and fuselage, and realizes he hit something. He gets airborne, dials 911 (notifies his wingman and the supervisor of flying), and coordinates for and completes a safe and successful recovery. Our first responders recover and impound the aircraft, take the pilot’s statement, and recover numerous pieces and smears from the aircraft and runway. Our trained flight safety officer, or FSO, recognizes the evidence is clearly from a bird, but what kind was it, where did it come from, and what do we do next?

Of course, our hero would turn to the recently published Air Force Instruction 91-212, Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) Management Program. There,
our FSO would be directed to collect all feathers, fragments and DNA samples to submit to the Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab, which is where the real magic takes place. On a lower level of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, away from the public exhibits, we find the Feather Identification Team of Dr. Carla Dove, Marcy Heaker, Jim Whatton and Faridah Dahlan. The team uses a variety of methods to identify more than 9,000 samples each year from civil and military sources. The result of their work adds to an ever-expanding database, which benefits not only aviation safety, but biologists, airfield managers, researchers and engineers designing more bird-resistant aircraft systems.

The Feather Identification Lab routinely receives samples from the head, feet or beak carefully removed from the mishap scene, preserved and submitted for analysis. But the forte of the lab is feather analysis, which has had a significant impact on understanding bird migratory patterns and behaviors. The lab has comparison specimens from more than 10,000 species, representing 85 percent of the world’s bird population. The collection includes specimens from John J. Audubon and Theodore Roosevelt and covers over 100 years of bird specimens.They range in size from 1.6 ounce hummingbirds to huge ostrich, albatross, and condors. The lab also maintains a cross reference to sound recordings and DNA samples.

Here are a couple other notes from a recent visit to the Feather Identification Lab. While most strikes occur closer to the ground, there has been an increase in high-altitude strikes from migrating birds. Topping the list for the most strikes with Air Force aircraft is the Horned Lark. Swallows are involved in the most strikes for the Navy, and Mourning Doves for civil aviation. In general, bird strike reporting has increased over time, with occasional peaks in reporting following high visibility mishaps. Increased and improved reporting has also improved our relationship with biologists overseas, having a positive effect in efforts to mitigate bird strike hazards during deployed operations. One word of advice: When submitting samples for a strike that occurred away from home base, be sure to identify where the strike actually occurred, rather than the home base — if known.

The more feathers provided with a sample, the better for identification purposes. Occasionally, there won’t be enough left for a feather ID. The facility also has an impressive DNA analysis lab; however, there are some points to remember. DNA analysis takes more time; it won’t be complete by the end of the show. One member of the feather ID team related a story of one DNA submission from a strike at altitude that came back matched to a white tailed deer — around Christmas, no less. A second test confirmed the same, but the third test from the small sample also matched the vulture, which had apparently been feasting on the unfortunate deer.

While all this fascinating activity was taking place in the lab, our hero, the FSO, would have been completing interviews, gathering all the pre-mission planning materials, along with the Bird Avoidance Model (BAM) information and the Aviation Hazard Advisory System (AHAS) data. If the base had a Bird Detection Radar, that information would also be reviewed to fill in what happened in the moments leading up to the critical event. At a key point in the story, the forensic results would be delivered in a less dramatic fashion, allowing our FSO to complete the report. Even with the best near real-time information, or perhaps with cockpit displays, some bird strikes will remain unavoidable. As long as we share the airspace with them, birds will be have to be part of our decision-making and risk management processes.

We frequently hear the comment “It’s just a bird strike,” particularly when there is not a huge cost in damage, or perhaps a lost aircraft. However, each piece of information contributes to the quality of the data used to support the BAM and AHAS models. Better data helps us track migration patterns, assess environmental conditions, improve airfield management processes and improve bird resistant engineering efforts. The behind-the-scenes work at the Feather Identification Lab, supported by the Air Force, Navy and Federal Aviation Administration, has been making critical contributions to improving awareness and implementing effective prevention strategies.