Smithsonian Institution, Feather Identification Lab

Feather Identification Lab staff amongst feather samples
Feather Identification Lab Staff among the Smithsonian collections used for birdstrike identification. Left to right: Carla Dove, Faridah Dahlan, Ingrid Rochon, Jim Whatton and Sarah Luttrell.

Resources

Identification of birds and other wildlife involved in aircraft strikes is an important part of the overall assessment and management of wildlife mitigation at airports. Knowing the exact species provides guidance to the size, behavior, and ecology of the animal in question and is key to tracking species trends as well as focusing preventative measures. Species identifications provide the baseline data needed to plan habitat management on airfields, build avoidance programs, and have even been used to assist engineers in designing windscreens and engines that are more resilient to birdstrike events. FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200-32 provides guidance on reporting bird strikes.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab is a highly specialized lab that processes over ten thousand wildlife strike cases annually. We identify the species involved in strikes using both whole and fragmentary feather material, as well as small amounts of blood and tissue containing DNA . Funding for the lab is supported by interagency agreements between the Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Methods Used to Identify Wildlife Strike Remains

Staff identifying species involved in birdstrikes by matching remains to museum specimens
Matching an unknown tail feather with a museum specimen of a Killdeer is a quick and straightforward identification method.

Over 95% of wildlife strikes involve birds. While each case is different, we approach the identification of these remains based on what kind of material is available. If there is a whole bird or partial carcass, identifications can be based on physical characters traditionally used when viewing birds in the wild, including size, color, and pattern. Wings, feathers, feet, and beaks can then be compared with the bird specimens in the Smithsonian’s museum collection to make a final identification. This approach is also applied when samples include only loose or fragmented feathers.

Often there is very little material recovered from a birdstrike. Identification of samples consisting of small feather fragments, blood, and/or tissue (‘snarge’) can be examined in a several different ways. The microscopic features of the downy part of a feather are unique for different groups of birds (ex. duck, raptor, or songbird). Looking at this fluffy area of the feather can provide valuable clues to narrowing down the species identification.

A singing Meadowlark on the left and the appearance of its down through a microscope on the right
The microscopic structure of an Eastern Meadowlark downy feather barb (right)is typical of many songbirds.

Another method for identifying minute amounts of blood or tissue is DNA analysis. Molecular techniques are an important tool in the Feather Identification Lab’s toolbox. After extracting, amplifying (PCR), and sequencing the sample, the DNA sequence is compared with an online reference database of mitochondrial sequences known as the Barcode of Life Data Systems .

DNA extracted from snarge samples being sequenced
DNA extracted from snarge samples can be sequenced to determine a species identification.

Many times, samples are examined using more than one of these methods. Drawing together multiple lines of evidence, comparing samples against known references, and considering details of the case such as date and location lead us to the most confident species identification possible.

Collecting Remains

Staff collecting a variety of whole feather material
We recommend collecting a variety of material: if available, please pluck whole feathers from the wing, tail, breast, and back of the bird. If a carcass or distinguishing feature (beak, talon) is available upload a photograph of the remains with the online report. 

Because the type of remains is never the same, the best way to approach collecting birdstrike remains depends on what kind of material is available. FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200-32 provides instructions on how to collect and send birdstrike remains to the Smithsonian’s Feather Identification Lab for analysis. Detailed instructions are also available in the Feather Lab’s How to Collect Birdstrike Remains (PDF).

Staff collecting small samples to be sent to the lab
When collecting snarge samples (tissue, blood, feather fragments, etc.), send as much material as possible. Allow all samples to dry completely before shipping to prevent mold growth and DNA degradation.

Reporting and Shipping

When sending birdstrike remains for identification, please include a print out of the completed online FAA Wildlife Strike Report shipping sheet with confirmation number and QR code in the upper right corner (or send completed FAA Form 5200-7, Bird/Other Wildlife Strike Report and contact information.)

There are two options for sending birdstrike remains: US Postal Service or overnight/courier shipping. If a case is damaging or priority, we recommend overnight shipping. It is important to securely package the material and use the correct address. Shipments can be labeled "safety investigation material." If you are sending material from outside the U.S. please contact the Feather Identification Lab for special treatment and shipping requirements.

The general turn-around time to complete an identification is 6-8 days but results are faster if ample material is available for examination.

US Postal Service

Smithsonian Institution
Feather Identification Lab
NHB E-600, MRC 116
P.O. Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012

Courier Shipment (FedEx, UPS, DHL, etc.)

Smithsonian Institution
Feather Identification Lab, MRC 116
National Museum of Natural History
1000 Constitution Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20560-0116

Important Reminder

The Feather Identification Lab encourages field personnel to practice good hygiene when working with birdstrike material. Wearing latex gloves, eye/face protection, and thoroughly washing hands are all simple precautions that can help increase health safety. Additionally, we recommend being familiar with your airfield’s protocols for proper carcass disposal. Always follow the safety guidance provided by your own agency or organization.

Feather Lab Contact Information

  • Feather Identification Lab
    featherlab@si.edu or (202) 633-0801
    Washington, DC
  • Carla Dove, Program Manager
  • Jim Whatton, Assistant Program Manager
  • Faridah Dahlan, Genetics Specialist
  • Sarah Luttrell, Research Assistant
  • Ingrid Rochon, Research Assistant
Last updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2024