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.”