DNA shows jet that landed in Hudson struck migrating geese

McClatchy NewspapersJune 8, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The birds that smacked into the engines on Charlotte-bound U.S. Airways Flight 1549 were at least two Canada geese flying a migratory path, according to Smithsonian researchers who studied the bird remains after the plane landed in the Hudson River.

Experts say the news of the birds' species and flight pattern will help airlines and airports better mitigate the threat of bird strikes.

Had the geese been residents of New York, they could be managed through population control, habitat modification or removal, said Peter Marra, a research scientist at the Smithsonian, who helped announce results of the birds' background Monday morning in Washington.

Instead, Marra said, the migratory pattern of the birds may require more elaborate techniques to monitor the birds' movements. That could, for example, mean looking out for the migratory patterns of flocks and adjusting the routes or timing of flights.

The Smithsonian's announcement comes on the eve of a three-day hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, a fact-finding meeting to gather more information about the crash. The pilot, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, is expected to testify at the hearing Tuesday morning.

The plane, en route to Charlotte, had gone about five miles from New York's LaGuardia airport when it hit a flock of geese about 2,900 feet above ground Jan. 15.

The flock damaged both engines, causing the plane to lose altitude. Sullenberger landed the plane safely in the Hudson River. All 155 people aboard survived, evacuating the plane before it sank in the river. Scientists at the Feather Identification Laboratory at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History studied the bird tissue and feathers, called snarge, found in the engines.

Through DNA and microscopic analysis, scientists found that there was at least one male and one female – and possibly more – Canada geese (Branta Canadensis) that disabled the engines.

The Canada goose is one of the largest species in North America, according to the Smithsonian, with adults weighing up to 8 pounds.

Once the birds' species was determined, scientists at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute labs studied the stable-hydrogen isotopes of the feathers. The isotopes, a chemical compound, show what kind of food the young birds ate as their feathers were growing, just after molting.

The research showed the birds' feather isotopes were most similar to birds found in the Labrador region of eastern Canada – meaning they were migratory birds and not resident geese of New York.

The results of the Smithsonian's lab tests were published today in the journal "Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment." Marra was the lead author.

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