Chicago When animals are the prime suspects in a whodunit, who gets on the case? In capers where feathers or fur are the smoking guns, the role of CSI is often played by top natural history museums.
They can even tell when the perp was from out of town.
The cockpit crew of US Airways Flight 1549 knew their plane had struck birds after taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Both engines shut down and Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger had to ditch in the Hudson River — saving all 155 people aboard.
It was clear soon enough after the Jan. 15 accident that the guilty fowl were Canada geese. What wasn’t known was whether they were migratory or homebody geese — a critical distinction as airports devise strategies to shoo them out of aircraft flight paths.
That’s where the museums came in.
The Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington served as lead detective, with assistance from Chicago’s Field Museum.
“We try to tell people we’re here for a reason — and this case helps demonstrate that,” said ornithologist John Bates, who works with the Field Museum’s 480,000-bird collection. It includes inch-long hummingbirds, 5-foot ostriches and everything in between.
Rows of cabinets on the 116-year-old museum’s sprawling second floor hold specimens of 90 percent of the world’s 10,000 known bird species. But it was the Field’s collection of 2,700 samples of Canada geese — including some that migrated from the eastern Canada region of Labrador — that was the key to cracking the case.
Field ornithologists sent Labrador goose feathers and tissue to the Smithsonian, where tests showed the birds to blame for the US Airways accident were the Labrador type — not New York varieties that largely stay put year-round on the city’s waterways.
The clincher was a test in which Smithsonian scientists tested stable hydrogen isotope values in feathers — telltale markers that indicate where vegetation eaten by the birds grew. Migrating Labrador geese have eaten grass from different areas than the stay-at-home New Yorkers, and that showed up in the tests.
The findings, published in the June 8 editions of the journal “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment,” mean New York airports may have to develop one method to keep migratory geese away from planes and another for the birds that nest in the city.
“A lot of people say ‘who cares about knowing the bird type,”’ said Carla Dove, the aptly named program director at the Feather Identification Laboratory. “But that’s critical. The strategies differ according to species. If you have starlings or turkey vultures, you deal with it differently.”
The Field Museum scientists have been called into a variety of investigations over the years.
Authorities have sought their assistance in identifying animals smuggled into the U.S. and the feathers on headdresses brought in by tourists who may not have known they were fashioned from endangered birds, explained museum ornithologist, Dave Willard.
His detective work included once trying to decipher how many pieces of chicken were in a meal that may have been eaten by a suspect in one of the Chicago area’s most notorious murders — the slaying of seven people inside a restaurant.
His comparison of the leftovers found in the garbage with chicken bones in Field’s collection was inconclusive — though Willard still testified at the 2007 trial of suspect Juan Luna, who was later convicted.
Requests for Field detective services have tapered off over the past decade, in part because federal wildlife and other labs have taken up much of the slack.
The Smithsonian’s four-employee feather lab is busier than ever, though, as the number of bird-plane collisions has soared. Pilots have reported hitting more than 59,700 birds since 2000, most often mourning doves, gulls, European starlings and American kestrels.
Every week, dozens of bird carcasses, parts or merely gooey remnants arrive by mail after they’ve been scrapped off damaged airplane engines. The US Airways strike involved birds that weighed an average of 8 pounds, and it took Dove and her team months to sift through 69 bags of remains.
Bird-strike cases processed by the unit jumped to more than 4,500 in 2008 from around 300 in 1989, Dove said. The lab has a success rate of more than 90 percent in identifying birds, solving many cases in just hours using a database of bird DNA.
But without the Field’s goose collection, pinpointing the precise type of Canada geese could have taken longer, Dove said.
She said the US Airways case shows that bird collections, many compiled over more than a century, aren’t just academic indulgences.