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Feathers studied to help stop bird strikes

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  • Feathers studied to help stop bird strikes

    The home story type article I had found once was more impressive, here more the dry view, R.

    SOURCE: Air Force Times, citing AP
    DATE: JAN 22, 2008

    Feathers studied to help stop bird strikes

    DAYTON, Ohio — Researchers who spend their workdays in a room filled with hundreds of thousands of bird carcasses are working to helping reduce one of the deadliest threats to Air Force planes — collisions with birds.

    Ohio native Marcy Heacker-Skeans, who grew up in suburban Clayton, is one of three researchers who work in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Feather Identification Lab.

    In the Washington, D.C., room filled floor-to-ceiling with about 650,000 bird carcasses preserved as early as the 1860s, she matches feathers and bird remains scraped off military and civilian aircraft with feathers from the Smithsonian’s massive collection and images in her “Sibley Guide to Birds.”

    The Air Force estimates it loses about $35 million annually to strikes by birds, and the results can be deadly.

    For example, investigators believe the 1995 crash of an AWACS military surveillance plane near Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska that claimed the lives of 24 American and Canadian fliers was caused when several geese were sucked into the engines.

    By finding out which birds collided with which planes in which circumstances, Heacker-Skeans gives wildlife biologists at airfields crucial information they use to try to prevent it from happening again.

    The research has helped spur the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration to make physical adjustments to aircraft, such as thickening canopies. Thanks to the research, airfield biologists mow grass, fill in wetlands and take other precautions aimed at encouraging birds to fly elsewhere.

    The Air Force, which helps fund the feather identification lab, requires its airmen to record all known bird strikes, and the data collected by the lab is used for complex computer programs that project the risk of bird strikes.

    In 2003, the FAA began kicking in money as well. It paid for a geneticist who helps identify bird remains too minuscule to be determined through the traditional method of matching feathers.

    The Smithsonian got involved in studying bird strikes in 1960, when ornithologist Roxie Collie Laybourne first identified a flock of European starlings as the cause of a fatal airplane crash at Boston’s Logan International Airport.

    Laybourne, who died in 2003 at the age of 93, was a pioneer in the field and served as a mentor to Heacker-Skeans.

    Heacker-Skeans moved to Washington in 1994 when her husband took a job as a videographer and editor, and she began studying wildlife forensics. She started working as a volunteer at the lab in 1996 and was hired full-time in 2000.

    She said the job is everything she’s ever wanted. It gives her a chance to work with wildlife and play detective at the same time.

    “Every case is a little mystery to solve,” she said. Rings a bell somehow...