Air Safety: A CSI Lab for Bird Strikes

Every day, tucked five floors above the eight-ton African elephant that greets visitors at Washington's Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Carla Dove tackles some of the Air Force's dirty work—literally—at her forensic ornithology laboratory. Behind a door marked FEATHER IDENTIFICATION LAB, Dr. Dove (yes, that's her real name) sorts through shredded feathers, bits of claws or beaks, and sometimes nothing but bird goo called "snarge"—all in an effort to discover, CSI-style, what types of birds crash into military and commercial airplanes.

Dove's work will be back in the public eye Tuesday as the National Transportation Safety Board holds a public hearing in Washington on US Airways Flight 1549, which made that unforgettable water landing in New York City in January. In the months since the "Miracle on the Hudson", the Smithsonian lab has identified the birds that destroyed that flight's engines as migratory Canada Geese, including at least one male and two females.

On a recent tour of her facility, Dove, an easy-going "40-something" woman with blond hair and the accent of her native Fulks Run, Va., showed NEWSWEEK forensic evidence from Flight 1549, including a smelly tub of bagged up snarge and feathers. Each day's mail brings Dove and three assistants 10 to 18 envelopes full of bird remains like these, sent by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and commercial airports, which are compared against 620,000 bird specimens in the museum's collection. Sleuthing out these birds' IDs isn't just for statistical purposes; it could potentially save lives, both human and bird. Though most reported bird strikes have no fatalities (except, of course, for our feathered friends), identifying the fallen creatures impacts how they are managed by airports and wildlife officials. And aircraft manufacturers have factored in the weight of the species involved in strikes when designing plane engines.

"In order to fix the problem we need to know what it is," explains Eugene LeBoeuf, the U.S. Air Force chief of the Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard team. Most of Dove's work comes from the Air Force since the agency requires that all bird strikes be reported. Since 1985 the Air Force has reported more than $250 million worth of damage from strikes involving one species alone, the American White Pelican. Though strikes involving pelicans are less frequent than incidents with smaller birds like Horned Larks and Mourning Doves, the pelicans are the most costly offenders because of the damage they can do with 15-pounds of girth. These pelicans have been responsible for 21 strikes to Air Force craft, two of them downing planes, says LeBoeuf. When damaging strikes like that happen, Dove's lab swings into high gear—providing analysis as quickly as a few hours or a day.

While the Air Force's bird strike database has been online for years (though difficult to find), the Federal Aviation Administration data only became publicly available in April, amidst objections that releasing the data might paint an unfair picture; reporting to the FAA is voluntary, and not all airports report all their strikes. In fact, the FAA estimates that only 20 percent of strikes are reported. Catherine Lang, the FAA acting associate administrator for airports says that despite the low figure, the FAA believes that the most damaging strikes do come to their attention.

In May, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York announced that he will propose legislation to make reporting of all commercial bird strikes mandatory. He noted that the $387 million the FAA has provided since 1997 for addressing wildlife management around airports is awarded based on current estimates of bird strikes. He argues that the problem may be larger than the public knows, and it's not going away: recent studies suggest that many of the most hazardous species are increasing in population size and seem to be growing accustomed to noise generated by humans and their machines.

While Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood isn't sure that legislation is needed, he tells NEWSWEEK, "I can't think of why we would object to this." LeBoeuf can: enforceability. How would the FAA ensure that all bird strikes were reported? he asks. Many strikes are only discovered by maintenance crews after the fact. (Schumer's office did not respond to NEWSWEEK's inquiries on this matter.) LeBoeuf says reporting is easier to enforce in the armed services since its members are accustomed to many rules and regulations, but even then he isn't sure all strikes get reported.

Identifying which birds are most likely to hit aircraft does not necessarily translate into a silver bullet for avoiding them. While the Air Force can choose not to fly at a certain time or fly a different route, commercial air lines don't have that luxury. Impatient passengers would not stand for their flights being cancelled on account of possible bird migration. Existing radar technology used by both the military and the FAA rely on Doppler weather radar to look at bird flight patterns on a bigger scale. Smaller local radar stationed at a few airports and Air Force bases, depending on the model, can detect birds about five to six miles out and about 3,000 feet up. This type of avian radar is only being used at a few sites though and is not used to instruct pilots in real-time, in part because the radar can interfere with the transmissions of other technology and has not been reviewed to the FAA's satisfaction, says Ed Herricks of the Center of Excellence for Airport Technology at the University of Illinois. Even if the radar technology had been stationed at LaGuardia Airport (which it was not), it probably would not have detected the geese that downed Flight 1549 since the incident occurred at the radar's limits, he says.

The complex obstacles to utilizing the technology are more than a matter of money. "The public expects Star Wars is real," LeBoeuf comments. "There's an awful lot to do between getting the information on the machines and transferring that information to the pilots."

In the meantime, Dove says each envelope in the mail gets her a little closer to making air travel safer. Her process involves comparing feathers to the Smithsonian samples and using DNA analysis to identify tissue samples or snarge (a term created from combining "snot" and "garbage"). When those both fail, the team looks at the barbs on feathers to identify at least the family of bird (e.g. duck or dove). "It's really quite complex," she explains. "When you take a feather from a different part of a bird, the barbs on the downy part may be entirely different." Dove estimates it took her some eight to 10 years to hone her techniques. Now the lab reports it can ID about 90 percent of the bird-strike remains it receives. (Watch a video of Dove in action at her lab.)

Once they know what birds they're dealing with, wildlife biologists can then roll out their full arsenal—making the area around airports as inhospitable as possible by getting rid of the birds' favored food source, and in the case of Canada Geese, employing remote-control boats or border collies to chase them out of ponds, oiling eggs which keeps them from hatching, and firing loud specialized firecrackers to scare them off, according to Allen Gosser, assistant state director for New York with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services. Gosser says that during migratory season his teams will come back to a site by an airport two or three times a day for five days, in the hopes of sending the "stay out" message to the birds. But their efforts can only go so far—pushing birds to another location, typically three miles away, and some of their efforts are blocked by environmental-protection laws.

Dove, the daughter of poultry farmers, used to run and hide when her grandmother butchered a chicken for dinner, but now she doesn't even flinch when studying the most grisly remains. "It's like solving a puzzle," she says. "Each case is different with a different set of materials, and that keeps it interesting." If the FAA makes reporting mandatory, she anticipates a lot more birds will be sent her way. "It's not a glamorous job, but I love it. I can't see myself doing anything else," she says. And for that, air passengers everywhere should be grateful.