Tracking the Geese That Kill Planes : Shots - Health News The Canadian geese that sent a plane into the Hudson were migrating through, not resident troublemakers.
NPR logo Tracking the Geese That Kill Planes

Tracking the Geese That Kill Planes

Mike Begier and Allen Gosser of USDA Wildlife Services pull feathers from jet engine for analysis. /National Transportation Safety Board hide caption

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/National Transportation Safety Board

The flock of Canadian geese that knocked out two jet engines and forced a US Airways Airbus A320 into the Hudson River in January, were just passing through--not locals--according to a chemical analysis of their feathers by the Smithsonian Institution.

The analysis tracked the relative amounts of stable hydrogen isotopes, which turns out to be a telltale sign of what the birds ate, and where that food came from. Apparently, these geese were based in Newfoundland, not Queens.

That's an important distinction, and not just for chauvinistic New Yorkers, according to Peter Marra, a migratory bird specialist at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

If the geese had been part of the flock that live year-round in wetlands near LaGuardia, then using tactics like addling eggs, clearing habitat, and chasing birds from the airfield might be most fruitful way to prevent similar bird strikes, Marra says.

On the other hand, if collisions occur mostly with migrating birds, then other approaches, such as improved radar technology, would be more useful.

Sounds expensive, but would be worth the cost, Marra thinks. Worldwide, bird strikes (not to mention coyote, deer, and giant lizard strikes of planes) cost upwards of $600 million in damage every year, and have killed more than 220 people since 1988.

And that's not counting the close call on the Hudson, which is expected to come under more scrutinty by the FAA at hearings this week.

To see how your local airport fares in terms of dangerous birdstrikes, check NPR's interactive map here.