Friday, January 4, 2008

It's a bird! It's a plane!

...No, wait, it's both! Here's an article (A1; subscription required) by Michael M. Phillips about one of the stranger jobs in America: the guy in Baghdad who collects smashed birds from Air Force planes and the woman who analyzes them.

The bird collector: "Lt. Col. Del Johnson...[who makes] sure that every time war bird and regular bird collide, the latter is scraped off the former and shipped to scientists at the Smithsonian Institution." Why this job? Answer: even a sparrow can destroy a plane if it goes into the turbines; a goose collision can destroy the pilot & co. Johnson has tried to get the birds away, period, by such methods as burning trash in towers (rather than "open pits, [which attract] mice, [which attract] birds"), shooting "fireworks from a double-barreled signal pistol," and potentially "a $7,700 Desman laser with a sniper's scope and 1.5-mile-long beam (Birds aren't harmed by the laser, its dealer says.)." The alternate method is the favorite of scientist-mathematicians everywhere: analyze the collisions to get data by which pilots can more easily avoid the birdies.

And that is where the woman, Carla Dove (yes, pun) in Washington state, comes in.

Ms. Dove and her staff have three methods of identifying dead birds, which they do about 4,000 times a year. Marcy Heacker, a 44-year-old research assistant from Dayton, Ohio, specializes in matching whole feathers with those found on more than 620,000 bird specimens in the museum's back rooms. Red-tailed hawks, scarlet tanagers, blackpoll warblers and more are lined up in drawers stacked floor to ceiling, their bodies lifelike except for the white cotton where their eyes once were.

There's taxidermy at its best for you-serving the country! Here are the other two methods:

When feather remains are too severely damaged to make a naked-eye identification, Ms. Dove steps in. In wooden filing drawers in her office, amid pictures of birds and jets, she keeps 2,400 microscope slides of fluffy feather barbs. Up close, she can see nodes that distinguish, say, a wren from a Muscovy duck. "Not many people do this," says Ms. Dove...

In the case of Col. Johnson's two-bird specimen, however, there wasn't enough feather to do microscopic comparison. So the blue, blood-stained rag ended up with Nancy Rotzel, a 28-year-old molecular specialist from Appleton, Wis. Using an expensive machine provided by the Federal Aviation Administration, Ms. Rotzel extracted DNA from the sample and matched it to records from the Barcode of Life Data Systems, a collection of DNA from 35,105 plant and animal species, [revealing] a 99.5% match with a skylark, and a 98.5% match with a great egret.

The Smithsonian team entered its findings into a global bird-avoidance database, which calculates the odds of a plane hitting a given species of bird at a given moment...

So nothing productive is coming out of the war, eh? (I'm kidding, of course.) This is just one of many silver linings. That job of "molecular specialist" sounds fun--not to mention the other two.


Aurora said...

That does sound like an interesting job. It reminds me of some of the obscure kind of stuff you see the forensics people carrying out on shows like C.S.I. etc.

Unknown said...

I've had the pleasure of working with the Smithsonian Bird ID lab for some time now, in the same capacity featured in the WSJ article. Aside from bird strikes (against aircraft) in combat zones, Dr. Dove analyzes all bird strikes to US Air Force aircraft, where ever they may occur. Her work absolutley provides data that prevents future mishaps, saving both lives and money for the taxpayers. Some of that data is presented on a bird density tracking website at

Dr. Dove (PhD in Ornithology, GMU 98) has been doing this work for years. She also learned the ID business master-grasshopper-style, firshand, from her predecessor and the first true bird-ID-woman of the SI. Find out more about Dr. Dove at:

Also, as part of the 600K+ specimens she keeps on file, Dr. Dove maintains samples collected by such notables as Charles Darwin, James Audubon, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Thanks for highlighting this little publicized, but widely used capability.

Hannah said...

Thank YOU, Edward, for stopping by! Keep visiting every once in a while; my main purpose for this blog is to highlight interesting tidbits of biology.