“Snarge” passes and studying it makes your plane trip safer

When I wrote about European starlings and their complex history of American origin, I did not expect readers to be so fascinated by a particular word in the article: snarge. But like emails, tweets and other comments were made, it became clear that this six-letter word that sounded twisted and the field of scientific research that produced it deserved to be examined in more detail.

On October 4, 1960, a Lockheed L-188 Electra crashed into Boston Harbor just seconds after takeoff. Of the 72 crew members and passengers, only 10 survived.

As investigators sorted through the rubble, they found balloons of what appeared to be black feathers. This material was eventually known as snarge.

The best researchers could have guessed that Electra’s engines had ingested a flock of birds, but no one could tell what kind of bird a plane of this size could shoot down. So the researchers called Roxie Laybourne, a Smithsonian Institution ornithologist who was an expert on feathers.

With a large collection of museum specimens at her disposal, Ms. Laybourne compared the microscopic patterns of feathers. What destroyed the Electra had not belonged to a large-bodied bird, such as a vulture, a turkey, or a crow. Rather, the feathers were from the tiny European starling.

In the following decades, airports would hire wildlife biologists to take the information provided by Ms. Laybourne and use it to deter certain species of birds from passing through their flight routes. In turn, Mrs. Laybourne would become a legend in the science and safety of air traffic known as Feather Lady. You would be equally justified in calling her the Queen of Snarge.

Carla Dove, program director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Laboratory and successor to Ms. Laybourne said she wasn’t sure who coined the term snarge for the first time, but heard it for the first time at the museum.

Snarge can be a bunch of Canadian geese housed inside the engine of an airplane. Or it could be a broken and burned seagull feather scattered along the track. Snarge can even be as small as a rusty red spot on the nose of an airplane.

But no matter what shape you take, each reservoir is different, and all the snarges are important.

At the time of Mrs. Laybourne, the physical comparison of snarged specimens under a microscope was the industry standard.

“He cleaned the feathers and washed them, and then combined the pattern, colors and texture with the museum specimens,” said Dr. Where.

Dr. Dove and her colleagues now also use DNA analysis because a sparse sample does not always include a recognizable piece of pen. In some cases, the samples may be too small or degraded to produce DNA, so they solve the mystery with a combination of techniques.

And determining the origin of aggression has consequences in the real world. After the starlings were involved in the Electra crash, which remains the deadliest ever caused by a bird strike, the airline industry began making engines in light of these collisions. Many airplane models can now be expected to survive a bird’s stroke of up to eight pounds.

But even these technological advances do not mean that an aircraft is invulnerable to a bird attack, as Chesley B. Sullenberger III and her passengers learned in 2009 when Canadian geese shot down their Airbus A320 in the air. event now known as the Hudson Miracle. .

Of course, even small animals can have a fatal impact.

“Starlings have been known as lead bullets,” said Richard Dolbeer, a scientific advisor for the Airport Wildlife Hazards program, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “They are a small, thick bird with a higher body density than many other bird species.”

Since the 1960s, the Feather Identification Lab has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration and wildlife biologists at all major airports to identify troubled birds and deter them from spending time nearby.

Management options include capturing and relocating some birds or scaring others away with trained hawks, noise cannons, and distress calls. Rarely do they resort to lethal measures.

Other strategies include removing stagnant water, removing debris or food scraps, and putting nets on rest areas.

“Seriously, we just want the airport to be as uncomfortable as possible for the birds,” Dr. Dolbeer said.

Despite these efforts, a mess ensues. Wilbur Wright crushed a flock of birds in 1905, and in modern times, with more flights in the air than ever, airplanes hit birds every day. In 2019 alone, the FAA documented 17,358 strikes. The vast majority do little or no harm, thankfully.

Perhaps most interesting of all: Snarge is not limited to birds.

Bats and insects become snarge. And there are even more curious species that appear, such as frogs, turtles, snakes and even cats and rabbits.

The explanation?

Sometimes a bird of prey is frightened by an approaching plane and drops what it has in its claws, which is then sucked into a jet engine. It is also possible that when a bird and a plane collide, the contents of the predator’s stomach are splashed along with the rest of the bird, and that DNA still appears in genetic testing, Dr. Dove said. .

It’s never a boring day when you’re at the forefront of the scandal.

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