Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Charred remains

It's interesting for me to keep track of the investigation of the US Airways plane that crashed into the Hudson, because after an Air National Guard F-16 crashed on takeoff in Duluth on September 18, 1992, I was the first person to identify the charred remains of two or three American Golden-Plovers that had been sucked into the single engine. In that case, a flock of birds had been on the runway on a splendid migration day. F-16s go so fast that the pilot, David Johnson, didn't know what happened--he got up in the air and the engine instantly quit. He was quick-thinking, and pointed the plane away from houses before ejecting and parachuting to safety.

A few days later, two uniformed Air National Guard crash investigators showed up at my house with the remains of the birds in plastic bags, thinking I could identify them! They'd already stumped the people up at Hawk Ridge. Fortunately, since I had rehabbed so many birds, I had a pretty good feel for feathers. These were dull brown with no wingbars--although charring could mask colors, wingbars would have been at least a bit evident--and of the smooth and waxy texture characteristic of waterbirds. (That filled me with relief--when I heard about the crash, I was scared that the plane had collided with a hawk, since the day of the crash was also the day of our biggest raptor migration that year.) The remains were significantly smaller than duck wings, and so I methodically perused the field guide and saw that the only two shorebird possibilities were Solitary Sandpiper and what was then called the Lesser Golden-Plover, and that the length of the feathers was more consistent with the plover.

A couple of hours later, the investigators came by again, this time with photos of a dozen or so dead but easily identifiable Lesser Golden-Plovers. The photos had been taken by investigators scrutinizing the area around the runway. The plane had crashed into the whole flock. Sad as the little bodies made me, it felt wonderful to have figured out the charred ones correctly.

Cool as it was to identify those remains, playing forensic ornithologist for a day, my word could hardly be the final one. All the bird evidence was sent to the Smithsonian's amazing Roxie Laybourne for verification. She was a wonderful woman--I got to meet her at an AOU meeting and she was as warm and friendly as she was knowledgeable.

Anyway, today's New York Times has a fascinating article about the Smithsonian team that identifies birds now that Roxie Laybourne has died:

Published: January 25, 2009
At the National Museum of Natural History, scientists study the remains of birds that have collided with planes, looking for clues to prevent future accidents.