MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
If any bird remains are found on that US Airways jet, they'll be sent here to Washington, to the feather identification lab at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and that's where I am now - I'm with the lab's program manager, Carla Dove.
CARLA DOVE: Hi, Melissa.
BLOCK: And you have a more colorful description for yourself, besides program manager, you call yourself?
DOVE: Well, I don't call myself the snarge expert, but other people do. (Laughing)
BLOCK: Snarge, snarge. Now, S-N-A-R-G-E...
DOVE: Meaning it's bird goo that's wiped off of an aircraft after a bird strike.
BLOCK: And this comes in the mail, you're holding an envelope right here.
DOVE: Yeah, every day we get bird strikes in the mail, and we have a whole team here. And we have a couple of tools in our toolbox here to help us do bird IDs. We have the whole feathers that we use to match up with samples in the museum collection. We sometimes have DNA samples that we send to our DNA lab here, and sometimes they're microscopic samples.
BLOCK: Now, what you got here? Where's this from?
DOVE: Here's a package. This is from McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas.
BLOCK: And it's a plain old manila envelope.
DOVE: Yeah, and here's the report. It has some whole feathers.
BLOCK: And there's a plastic envelope with - what? - about six, six feathers. White and brown and - can you tell just by looking at them what that is?
DOVE: Well, because we have experience in doing this for, you know, a lot of years now, we have an idea of what it might be. But before we can do that, we have to go out to the collection and match it up with a specimen. But also in here are two little cards that were use to collect DNA samples.
BLOCK: So, there's a little smear of something on that card.
DOVE: Yeah, there's a little bit of snarge on there, and then we have whole feather to go with it. So, the more evidence we have, the more confident we are of our IDs.
BLOCK: This envelope says, number two ring cowl(ph) down bypass. I think that means this feather got sucked into part of an engine. And I have to say that, considering what this bird must have gone through, those feathers look like perfectly good feathers.
DOVE: That's true.
BLOCK: Very intact.
DOVE: Feathers are very resilient, and even if the whole bird, you know, is ingested in the engine and there's just some little pieces of down - of this fluff at the base of this feather - we can often look at the microscopic characters in there, and it will give us an idea of what group of birds we're dealing with.
BLOCK: How many of these samples do you get a year at this lab?
DOVE: Last year, we received somewhere around 4,000 samples.
BLOCK: And why is it helpful for aviation to know, you know, the bird that struck the plane was not a turkey vulture, in fact, it was a short-eared owl?
DOVE: Yeah, that's good because, if you think about pest management - and that's really what this is, is like a safety issue - you can't do anything about the problem until you know what the species that's causing the problem is. So, if you know it's a turkey vulture, as supposed to a short-eared owl, you know where they like to eat, you know what kind of habitat they like to hang out in, you know what time of day they're active. So, you can go out onto the airfield environment and do some kind of mitigation to keep the birds and the airplanes from colliding. And that's what they're trying to prevent happening, you know, some kind of bird causing some damage to an aircraft.
BLOCK: Of course, the aircraft is causing all kinds of damage to the birds.
DOVE: Exactly. (Laughing) And that's another thing - I mean we like to think that we're helping improve aviation safety, but we're also helping save birds by, you know, trying to identify what - what's causing the problem, so that the FAA and the USDA and the Air Force and the Navy can go onto their airfield and cut the grass, or they may move a pond from one area to another area or even fill in the pond totally, if they're having problems with ducks or waterfowl near the airport. So, the only way they can solve the problem is to, first of all, know what is causing the problem, and that's where our lab comes in to the whole picture.
BLOCK: Well, Carla Dove, thanks for telling us about feather identification and teaching us about this new word, snarge - S-N-A-R-G-E - bird goo.
DOVE: Thank you for coming over.
BLOCK: And Michele, you know me and birds. I could have spent, I think, all day down there at the Smithsonian feather identification lab. They have a room that is filled with drawers - floor to ceiling - filled with bird specimens. They have something like 630,000 dead birds, and they use those to help make these feather identifications, along with all the microscopic and the DNA work that they do.
MICHELE NORRIS: And that's how they actually identify this thing called snarge, this new term we've used today?
BLOCK: The snarge, yeah, the microscopic stuff. That's the gooey stuff and my new favorite word. Here are a few more things I learned down at the lab, Michele. Most bird strikes, they say, are not damaging, but they said the smallest bird that they have seen do damage to an aircraft was a golden crowned kinglet - weighed just about four grams, did $74,000 worth of damage to an Air Force aircraft.
NORRIS: Oh, my goodness.
BLOCK: Their busiest time is fall migration season; they might get 40 to 60 samples of feathers or snarge - you guessed it - snarge every day. The most the common bird specimens they receive are from horned larks and mourning doves - that was a surprise to me. And I asked the appropriately named Carla Dove if they've ever been stumped by a snarge specimen, and there is actually a great story there that we do not have the time to tell here on the air but, Michele, guess where you can hear it?
NORRIS: Oh, let me guess, let me guess. Would it be our Web site? (Laughing)
BLOCK: It is our Web site, you bet - npr.org.