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Smithsonian Helps With Bird Strike Investigation

By Ed O'Keefe

As the National Transportation Safety Board holds a hearing today to discuss an aircraft's ability to withstand bird strikes, they received some crucial information from the fair-feathered investigators at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

NTSB officials will discuss how to avoid incidents like the one that felled U.S. Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River earlier this year. As the AP reports today, "The Federal Aviation Administration is testing bird-detecting radar that may help airports manage nearby bird populations. Some experts have also suggested aircraft engines should be designed to withstand bigger birds."

But a recent analysis conducted by Zoo scientists suggests that disrupting bird populations near New York airports would not have saved Flight 1549.

How did anyone come to that conclusion? Teamwork, of course!

"Immediately after this bird strike occurred, and the evidence was collected in the field, it was hand-carried to us," says Carla Dove, an aptly-named forensic ornithologist with the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. NTSB and FAA officials brought the bird remains to the Northwest D.C. zoo, where she matched them with museum specimens to confirm it was a Canadian goose. Her team then extracted DNA, matched it with the DNA already in its database and determined that Canadian geese struck the plane.

But scientists took it a step further, working to determine if the plane was struck by migratory or New York-area geese.

"What we found was that the feathers from the U.S. Airways flight that went down, those feathers matched the birds that were true migrants from the high Arctic and were nowhere, not even close to the residents that we had sampled in the New York City region," said Peter Marra, a National Zoo migratory bird biologist.

"We really don't think these birds were actively migrating back north," he said, but instead on a short trip around the tri-state area in search of food.

Pretty cool. And if CBS gets desperate next season, maybe we'll see "CSI: Smithsonian" hit the airwaves?

Related: Eye on the National Zoo's Panda Staff (Video, May 21, 2009)

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By Ed O'Keefe  | June 9, 2009; 10:33 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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