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Students Become Forensic Detectives in 'Bird Strike Whodunit'

by Nicole Webster -- Oct 28, 2014
A woman wearing glasses and blue gloves holds up two human skulls. Teenage students watch in the background.

Nicole Webster is the School Programs Coordinator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She develops, evaluates, and facilitates...

Students use an Olympus BX43 Five-Headed Compound Microscope to examine feathers in the school program, "Bird Strike Whodunit." Smithsonian photo.
Students use an Olympus BX43 Five-Headed Compound Microscope to examine feathers in the school program, "Bird Strike Whodunit." Smithsonian photo.

As a plane takes off from Reagan National Airport, one of its wings strikes a bird in midair. Thousands of such bird strikes happen every year, killing the birds and causing millions of dollars in damage to aircraft. What can be done?

The first step in the process is to accurately identify the type of bird that was struck. After a bird strike occurs, airports are encouraged to send the remnants, called “snarge,” to the Feather Identification Lab here at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The lab, headed by Dr. Carla Dove, identifies the bird that was involved and reports the information back to airlines and airports. Airport managers and airlines use the feedback to design airplanes that are less susceptible to damage by birds and to modify airfield practices and airplane designs to reduce the chance of bird strikes.

Students Investigate a CaseStudents study feathers.
During the "Bird Strike Whodunit" school program, students replicate the Feather Identification Lab’s processes for one of Dr. Dove’s actual cases. In order to do so, students look at three types of evidence: the whole feather, DNA, and feather microscopy. To identify the whole feather, students compare their samples to our bird collections in   Q?rius. They also use scientific tools such as calipers and reference guides to learn what part of a bird the feather came from, and what different parts of a feather can tell us about the bird species.

At the DNA station, students learn the basic building blocks of DNA and how to identify specimens using this type of evidence. Once they identify the species from the snarge samples, they may be surprised!

Finally, at the feather microscopy station students examine feather barbs under a compound microscope. Bird species have unique nodes on their feathers, so students can identify the species by sketching what they see in the microscopes and comparing the sketches to a reference guide.

Student looking at feather in a microscopeOnce the group identifies the bird species, students work together to develop a wildlife management plan that will prevent future bird strikes and also balance animal and human needs. Every airport has different strategies for dealing with bird strikes, so multiple solutions need to be examined and thought through!

“Bird Strike Whodunit” is just one of six hour-long, staff-led programs we offer in Q?rius. All Q?rius school programs are designed for grades 6 through 12 and aligned to standards. Explore all of our offerings and register your group today!


Program Details: "Bird Strike Whodunit" is a free, staff-led school program created for Grades 6-12. It is designed to keep students on task for 60 minutes. Subject areas: Biology, Environmental Science, Ornithology. Get Field Trip Guide

How to Register: We offer onsite school programs Monday through Friday. To register, go to the school program registration page, choose your date and time, click the "Sign Up" button, and on the registration form select the "Bird Strike Whodunit" program.

Watch Dr. Carla Dove explain how the Feather Identification Lab helps make air travel safer in a recent episode of Smithsonian Science How, a half-hour taped program that is aligned with middle-school standards and includes free classroom resources.

Categories: School Programs