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Carla Dove at work in the Feather Identification Lab. Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution


Carla Dove in the Feather Identification Lab.

Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

Passengers huddle on the wings as the Coast Guard and private ferries hurry out to rescue them from the frigid waters.
Passengers huddle on the wings as the Coast Guard and private ferries hurry out to rescue them from the frigid waters.
Photo by Janis Krums

 

Less than a minute after taking off from La Guardia Airport on January 15, 2009, US Airways flight 1549 collided with a flock of birds. The engines went dead, and the pilot made an emergency landing in the Hudson River, saving everyone on board.

The remains of the birds were sent to the CSI of the bird world—the National Museum of Natural History’s Feather Identification Lab.  The Museum pioneered the science of forensic ornithology in the early 1960s and today, handles about 4,500 birdstrike cases a year.

Why is it important to find out what kind of bird caused the crash?

Knowing exactly what species of birds caused this problem is the first step in helping to prevent future birdstrikes. If we know the bird’s habits, we can manage the airfield habitat to be less attractive to birds, design engines to withstand bird weights, and recommend techniques to reduce the populations of problematic birds. 

Here, a Turkey Vulture feather has been magnified 200x. Photo by Carla Dove, Smithsonian Institution
The Bird Strike Team compares bird remains ("snarge") to specimens from the Museum's extensive collection.
Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

The pulverized bird remains (also known as “snarge”) from the crash of US Airways flight 1549 were sent to the Museum's Feather Identification Lab. Here, they were compared to the Museum’s extensive collection of bird specimens, and tissue samples were analyzed using DNA barcoding.

There are about 10,000 bird species in the world. The Museum houses over 620,000 specimens, covering 85 percent of the world’s diversity. This comprehensive “library” of specimens allows the Museum to successfully identify 99 percent of the birdstrike cases they receive.

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) flying.
Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)
Photo by Dan and Linda Dzurisin, Vancouver, WA, 2007

 


On February 12, 2009, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that the birds had been identified by the Feather Identification Lab as Canada Geese (Branta canadensis).

How did we identify the type of bird that caused this crash?

The team at the Feather Identification Lab can match whole feathers and larger bird parts to specimens within the Museum’s collections.

Lab researchers had to carefully remove some of the feathery “snarge” to make the identification using microscopic examination. Each species has a unique feather microstructure, which can be seen in detail under high magnification.

Faridah Dahlan removing bird tissue specimen from frozen tanks at the Museum Support Center.
Faridah Dahlan removes bird tissue specimen from frozen tanks at the Museum Support Center.
Photo by Donald Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution

The Feather Identification Lab is supported by interagency agreements withthe FAA, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Navy.

Freezer tanks at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, contain tissue samples taken from specimens within the Museum’s collections and used to build a DNA library for sequence comparisons. DNA extracted from “snarge” is compared to the DNA from the library to make the ID.

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