Students stuff birds to aid airline safety

W/ Cousinis' story &quotusdatalk".  A group of taxidermy students at Nokomis Regional High School on Sept. 15, 2010 and Adam Vashon, a biologist with the USDA's Wildlife Services Program, prioritize a list of preserved bird skins he needs for training airport personnel how to keep birds away from aircraft.(Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)
W/ Cousinis' story "usdatalk". A group of taxidermy students at Nokomis Regional High School on Sept. 15, 2010 and Adam Vashon, a biologist with the USDA's Wildlife Services Program, prioritize a list of preserved bird skins he needs for training airport personnel how to keep birds away from aircraft.(Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)
Posted Sept. 15, 2010, at 10:14 p.m.
w Cousins' story &quotusdatalk" Nokomis Regional High School science teacher Howard Whitten, who teaches taxidermy in one of his classes, looks over some bird specimens provided by a Maine-based biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program on Sept. 15, 2010. The USDA needs the birds' skins preserved, which will be done by Whitten's class, to use as training tools for airport personnel. (Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)
w Cousins' story "usdatalk" Nokomis Regional High School science teacher Howard Whitten, who teaches taxidermy in one of his classes, looks over some bird specimens provided by a Maine-based biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program on Sept. 15, 2010. The USDA needs the birds' skins preserved, which will be done by Whitten's class, to use as training tools for airport personnel. (Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)
W/ Cousins' story &quotusdatalk".  Adam Vashon, a biologist with the USDA's Wildlife Services Program, center, inspects an example of a long-tail duck Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport. Discussing the specimen with Vashon is Nokomis science teacher Howard Whitten, who teaches a course in taxidermy, and junior Josh DeNicola. (Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)
W/ Cousins' story "usdatalk". Adam Vashon, a biologist with the USDA's Wildlife Services Program, center, inspects an example of a long-tail duck Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport. Discussing the specimen with Vashon is Nokomis science teacher Howard Whitten, who teaches a course in taxidermy, and junior Josh DeNicola. (Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)
story &quotusdatalk".  Adam Vashon, a biologist with the USDA's Wildlife Services Program, explains to a taxidermy class at Nokomis Regional High School Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 why he needs preserved examples of various bird species for his work of protecting aircraft from colliding with birds. The class will preserve several bird skins for Vashon in the coming weeks. (Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)
story "usdatalk". Adam Vashon, a biologist with the USDA's Wildlife Services Program, explains to a taxidermy class at Nokomis Regional High School Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 why he needs preserved examples of various bird species for his work of protecting aircraft from colliding with birds. The class will preserve several bird skins for Vashon in the coming weeks. (Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)

NEWPORT, Maine — Nokomis Regional High School science teacher Howard Whitten greeted his first class Wednesday with a statement that might seem a bit odd: “I haven’t seen it yet, but there’s a freezer across the hall filled with dead things.”

The nine students present for Whitten’s museum sciences class didn’t even flinch, because they know dead things are part of the course’s focus on taxidermy.

In a plan hatched between Whitten and a local biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the students will convert the freezer full of bird corpses into training tools to help aviation workers learn to recognize bird species, which will aid them in reducing dangerous collisions between birds and planes.

The freezer full of bird specimens was delivered to the school by wildlife biologist Adam Vashon, who works for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“Airplanes and wildlife, they don’t mix well,” said Vashon to the students. “We need some bird skins.”

Until last year, the most notable bird-aircraft mash-up was a 1995 crash that killed 24 people aboard a military surveillance jet in Alaska. Then last January, two Canada geese were sucked into the engines of a US Airways flight over New York City. The flight’s pilots crash-landed the plane and its 155 passengers safely in the Hudson River. Vashon uses the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” as an example of how 20 pounds of bird and a puff of feathers can cause disastrous results.

“But you can’t really prevent the migration of geese,” said junior Josh DeNicola. “You can’t change the [migration] routes they take.”

But you can change the route or timing of an aircraft, countered Vashon. From emerging RADAR technology that can detect flocks to pyrotechnic explosions that scare wildlife away from runways, Vashon teaches airport personnel in Maine techniques to minimize the risk.

Although runway collisions with deer are the lead cause of damage to airplanes in Maine, a long list of birds native to the state top the list of most-hazardous species. In some cases, colliding with a duck, gull, eagle or crane causes nothing worse than a blood-and-feathers smear that people in Vashon’s business playfully have dubbed “snarge.” In others, birds have smashed through windows, damaged airframes and, worse, ruined engines in mid-flight.

The task of documenting bird-aircraft collisions is serious business, to the point that airport personnel are required to be trained on bird identification and eradication techniques annually. When crashes happen, airports send bird flesh, feathers and snarge samples to the Smithsonian Institution, which will resort to DNA profiling if necessary to identify and catalog the species.

In some way the problem is becoming worse instead of better because of more than 40,000 flights a day in the United States and increasing populations of large birds from eagles to turkeys.

Documenting collisions allows scientists to target specific bird populations with specific eradication techniques, but Vashon said his most useful tool is an airport employee who can identify the kinds of birds he or she has seen causing hazards.

“I can’t manage ‘a little brown bird,’” he said. “I need to know what kind of bird it is.”

That’s where the Nokomis students come in. The bird skins they preserve will be stuffed with fabric and used in Vashon’s training classes.

Vashon, who is a 1989 Nokomis graduate and resident of Newport, said his visit to the school was his first since his graduation, but it won’t be his last. Vashon, who has traveled all over the United States and beyond studying wildlife, will work with students in the next few months by providing more bird specimens and the materials used in the preservation process.

Whitten said the exercise fits in well with the just-beginning school year because preserving skins is the first step in taxidermy.

“We have to study skins anyway,” said Whitten. “And this is public service, too.”

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