What Happens to All The Birds?

Smithsonian Institution Feather Identification Lab

The Strike                                                                                                                                                                                   

The Smithsonian Institution houses one of the world’s largest bird collections and is used as a comparison library for bird strike identifications. Photo by Chip Clark.

On January 19, 2017, a U.S. Navy T-45 Goshawk faced an in-flight emergency shortly after takeoff from NAS Meridian, Mss. A bird was sucked into the right air intake resulting in a fiery crash and a destroyed aircraft. What kind of bird caused this Class A (>$38 million) birdstrike? To find out, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wildlife biologists at NAS Meridian sent packets of the charred and burnt feather remains to the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab in Washington, D.C. for species identification. Although the evidence was burnt and fragmented, the staff of four immediately went to work to identify the species involved in this costly birdstrike as a black vulture, a bird commonly observed around NAS Meridian and weighing about 4.5 pounds — big enough to take down the aircraft!
With more than 600,000 bird specimens, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History houses one of the largest bird collections in the world and is an ideal place to conduct this kind of detective work. The U.S. Navy collaborates with the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to support a free-of-charge service to identify the ‘culprits’ in events like the Meridian crash. Scientists in the lab use the collections, microscopic expertise, and DNA analysis to investigate more 9,500 birdstrike samples annually.
Birdstrike Reporting
The first step in the identification process requires proper reporting of the strike and adequate collection of the sample. Submitting all information to the Web Enabled Safety System (WESS) is vital to tracking the case through the lab pipeline at the Smithsonian. The Navy submits more than 800 samples each year for species identification but we know that many cases go unreported. Reporting strikes and submitting samples for identification is the only way to determine what species are causing problems on each airfield. Species diversity varies depending on geographic location, season, and population status of the birds. Reporting all birdstrikes raises risk awareness and reduces costs of damaging strikes … period! Knowing the ‘culprit’ provides information on habitat preference, dietary needs, life history and other data to help direct BASH management decisions at each specific Navy installation.
Sample Collection
Gathering birdstrike investigation evidence is simple. A few minutes of your time can go a long way to improving the species information in the Navy wildlife strike database. Complete data and fresh samples are key to better identifications and allows results to reach the airfield in a timely manner. The quickest and most straight-forward method of species identification occurs when the sample contains enough whole feathers, or feather fragments, to directly compare with museum specimens for positive identification). If whole feathers are available, it is important to collect as many as possible.
A variety of whole feathers allows scientists to visualize what the whole bird looks like and narrows options. Please do not send complete whole bird carcasses or chunks of flesh for identification. They can arrive quite smelly and rotten. We want to remain friends with our mailroom folks! If a whole carcass is available, pluck feathers from all parts of the body (head, body, wings and tail) and place in a ziplock bag. You may send photographs as email attachments (to Feather Lab Staff) for supplemental information, but most species of birds cannot be positively identified from photos alone, so remember, the more the merrier when it comes to submitting birdstrike remains for identification.
DNA Analysis
Over 60 percent of the samples sent to the Feather Identification Lab are identified using DNA analysis. Because we have access to our own Smithsonian DNA lab, the process is quick and efficient. However, there are a few important points to remember when submitting ‘snarge,’ or bird ick, for identification (see side box on page 25 for quick sample tips)
Microscopic Analysis
When all else fails, or when other methods need verification, microscopic analysis is conducted by examining the characters found in the fluffy (or downy) part of the feather. Birds such as ducks, pigeons, gulls, owls, and hawks have unique suites of micro-characters that aid in guiding us to the proper group of birds. When collecting feather evidence, it is important to send as much as possible and never cut the feathers from the bird’s body, because we rely on the fluffy part for our analysis. Most often, we use a combination of all of the tools in our toolbox for species identifications.
“Why Identify?”
Fortunately, not all birdstrikes are as serious or costly as the Meridian example. However, in 2017, wildlife strikes cost the U.S. Navy more than $45 million. Proper species identifications provide baseline data used to make decisions about habitat management, assist engineers in designing safer engines and windscreens, and is used to warn aircrews of birdstrike dangers. Additionally, information from species identifications is used when applying for depredation permits, to analyze bird weight data, assess regional, local, national, and global birdstrike patterns, and make bird control decisions. Knowing the species involved in the Meridian crash may help biologists learn more about eliminating attractants for black vultures, provide information on flying times and altitudes, as well as migration patterns for this species, and provide education for pilots about the risk of these large and common birds.
The lab is busiest during fall migration (September through November) when many birds are heading south for the winter. It is common for birds to migrate at night and at high altitudes during migration. Spring migration (March through May) is the second busiest time in the lab. The winter is the slowest time for birdstrikes, but often many of the damaging strikes occur in winter since there are many larger-bodied birds such as ducks and geese that have migrated to their wintering grounds in the lower 48 states.
Room for Improvement
Although the number of samples submitted from the Navy for identification has doubled since the beginning of the Navy-Smithsonian collaboration in 2010, we are still only receiving remains for about 62% of the total reported strikes. Further, birdstrike remains are often received in batches that have accumulated over several months. Annual trends are inaccurate if remains are not recorded in the calendar year in which the strike occurred and old samples are often moldy or too degraded to yield DNA sequences for identification. The database is only as good as the data that’s in it. This is why he lab needs to keep comprehensive and accurate data regarding ALL bird strike activity. Occasional reporting or reporting only the damaging birdstrikes provides only a glimpse of the big picture of birdstrike activity. This could ultimately result in an incomplete and possibly misleading database.
The lab still often receive birdstrike reports that lack WESS serial numbers or only include a WESS serial number and no other information. It is important to include a copy of the WESS report with the strike submission. If that is not possible, please include the WESS serial number and pertinent details such as date, location, time of day, squadron, aircraft, modex or BUNO with the remains so the information can be tracked through our lab and through the Naval Safety Center. These data not only help corroborate species identification but also allow for linking the wildlife identification to the proper report. Including the WESS serial number is also essential because the Smithsonian has direct access to data entry into the WESS database. When you submit remains for identification, remember to release the report in WESS, which will allow the Smithsonian to edit the species information.
Please report all bird strikes and send any remains for identification as required by OPNAVINST 3750.6S, Naval Aviation Safety Management System. Each unit’s aviation safety officer (ASO) has access to the electronic online WESS reporting forms and can provide information on how to send feather remains. By working together, the lab can continue to upgrade our birdstrike database with more precise information, better species identifications and ultimately make the skies a little safer for all!




How to Collect

• Use gloves to collect ‘snarge’ and wash hands after sampling
• Remove samples from each impact point on the aircraft and place in zip-lock bags. Be sure to label each bag with the specific impact point if multiple impacts ( engine, wing, radome).
• Samples are best preserved for DNA analysis using ethanol (70% if possible) to collect the snarge and allowing the sample to dry before packaging for shipment. Alcohol prepackaged wipes are widely available, but be sure that they are not ‘BBQ wipes’ with only cleaners or detergents. Place unknown material in a zip-lock bag, and label each bag with the proper impact point (if more than one impact is noted).
• Log on to WESS and complete the electronic report. Attach a hard copy of the WESS report to the properly labeled samples.

When to Send

• Send the samples as soon as possible. Do not save up reports over several months. Samples degrade, rot, and can be unidentifiable.

What NOT to Do

• Never use tape on feathers. Downy barbules get tangled and glued, thus becoming impossible to remove.
• Never use post-its. Feathers get stuck in the glued edge.
• Never cut feathers off the bird or cut the tips away from whole feathers. Sometimes it’s necessary to examine the fine structures in the fluffy part of the feather. If that part has been cut away, it’s impossible to do the analysis.
• Never use bleach or cleaning chemicals to collect strikes.

Where to Send

Mail a hard copy of the WESS report to:

Smithsonian Institution
Feather Identification Lab
NHB E-600, MRC 116
PO Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013
(for overnight address see Navy website)



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