Smithsonian Institution, Feather Identification Lab

Staff members posing for a group photo standing behind a table full of bird specimens.
Feather Identification Lab Personnel - Marcy Heacker, Carla Dove, Jim Whatton and Faridah Dahlan

Reporting wildlife strikes is crucial to the continuing effort of birdstrike prevention. Identification of bird species involved in bird/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 bird 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 to design windscreens and engines that are more resilient to birdstrike events. FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200-32 provides guidance on reporting bird strikes.

Based on the work of Roxie Laybourne, the Smithsonian Institution Feather ID Lab is a highly specialized lab that currently process several thousand cases a year for bird species identification from whole and fragmentary feather material. 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 Birdstrike Remains

Staff try to identify species involved in birdstrikes by matching remains to museum specimens.
Matching an unknown tail feather with a museum specimen of a Killdeer

While each case is different, we approach the identification of birdstrike 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 SI museum collection to make a final identification. This approach is also applied when samples only include 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 can be examined in a couple of ways. The microscopic features of the downy part of a feather are unique for different groups of birds (ex. duck, raptor, or passerine). 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 Meadowlark feather down is typical of many passerines.
A Green Heron above its molecular barcode below.
The molecular barcode for the mitochondrial gene cytochrome C oxidase-subunit 1 (COI) of the Green Heron (image courtesy of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario)

The latest tool in the Feather Labs identification toolbox is DNA analysis. Using molecular techniques to analyze minute birdstrike remains is an important new advancement in the lab's ability to identify birds from blood and tissue samples. 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.

Many times samples are examined using more than one of these ID methods. The combination of examination results, reference comparison, and consideration of the case details (such as date and location) leads us to the most confident species identification possible.

Collecting Remains

Staff collecting a variety of whole feather material.
Collecting a variety of whole feather material is helpful in the identification process.

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 detailed instructions on how to collect and send bird strike remains to the Smithsonian Feather ID Lab for identification. The following is a breakdown of how to collect material for species identification for each of these types of remains.

Staff collecting small samples to be sent to the lab.
When collecting small samples (tissue, blood, feather fragments, etc.), send as much material as possible.

Reporting and Shipping

When sending birdstrike remains to the lab for identification, please include a completed FAA Form 5200-7, Bird/Other Wildlife Strike Report FAA Form 5200-7, Bird/Other Wildlife Strike Report (or print out and include your completed online Bird Strike Report FAA Wildlife Strike Database and contact information).

There are two options for shipment of birdstrike remains — regular US postal service and overnight/priority 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 ID Lab for special treatment and shipping requirements.

Regular Shipment

Smithsonian Institution
Feather Identification Lab
E600, MRC 116
P.O. Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012

Overnight / Priority Shipment

Smithsonian Institution
Feather Identification Lab
E600, MRC 116
10th & Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20560

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 airfields protocols for proper carcass disposal. Always follow the safety guidance provided by your own agency or organization.

Contact Information

Feather Identification Lab

Last updated: Wednesday, August 3, 2022