MS. REBECCA SHEIR
The humble seagull is just one kind of bird you'll find at the place we'll visit next, the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The lab has spent the past four decades studying bird strikes. That is, what happens when birds and planes collide. Basically the scientists at the lab help military and civilian airports determine which birds are striking aircraft.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But lately, the lab's scientists have been coming down from the sky, and into the literal bowels of one of our non-feathered friends, the Burmese python. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson has the story.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
Carla Dove holds a small package underneath the fluorescent lights inside the Smithsonian's Feather Identification Lab.
MS. CARLA DOVE
And what we have inside is prey remains from the Burmese python. So fortunately now, these are pre-cleaned. Back in the day, when we first started working on this, they'd send us the whole frozen intestinal tract and that could be a little smelly. These are better.
The serendipitously named Dove is a forensic ornithologist and manages the Smithsonian's Division of Birds, and thus, the Feather ID Lab. While there is an actual laboratory here, the ID Lab is dominated by a massive accumulation of bird specimens, housed in floor to ceiling wooden cases on the museum's sixth floor.
Let's open a case. So here we go.
This section of the museum is closed to the public, but in many ways is the most impressive collection in the building.
We have somewhere around 620,000 specimens right here on the sixth floor of this building. Most of the public do not even realize that we're here.
But when the military or the National Transportation Safety Board is investigation a bird strike, this lab is really the only place that can do the work of identifying exactly what species collided with the aircraft. All Dove and her team need is a fraction of a feather, although sometimes they get more than that, and often, it's messy. So often that decades ago, the prep lab here coined a word for what's left of a bird after a mid-air collision. It's a word that's practically become a technical term.
We call that snarge, that's ick, that's a bird ick, okay?
I think it means like snot and garbage.
So Dove and her team are not squeamish. But sifting through the digestive tracts of giant snakes, she says that took some getting used to.
You know, I didn't think I would ever be -- I love birds. I didn't think I'd ever be working with Burmese Pythons.
The opportunity first arose about five years ago, when researchers at Everglades National Park in Florida wanted to find out if the Burmese Python, an invasive species running amok in Florida swamps, was eating native birds. The answer has been a resounding yes. An early study encompassing about 80 pythons found 25 different species of birds in their stomachs.
This snake is opportunistic. It's eating everything in its path.
If you'd expect anyone to be enthusiastic about washing a feather in a beaker full of soap and water, it's an ornithologist named Dove. And she doesn't disappoint. She's giddy as the feather's coloring becomes clearer.
So this will be -- this is exciting. This tells me that we may have a chance at this one.
The feathers are about three inches long, round on the tips, and white near the shaft, or rakus of the feather. Of the eight specimens that arrived in the package from Florida, they're the best preserved. Dove uses an air compressor to dry them off.
See how nice they look? And look at the color of brown now.
You can sense that Dove already has a good idea of what bird ended up as this particular python's meal, but she has to check the molecular structure of the barbules as the base of the feather to be sure. It gives her a chance to gush about her new microscope.
So this is like the CSI forensic equipment that we just love, and this is new, and it's got great optics.
Those optics lead Dove to an order of birds known as Gruiformes, and a family that contains water birds such as cranes. Dove walks back to the collection room and opens the Gruiforme case, sliding out a tray of specimens known as Limpkins.
So here we have this nice little feather with a white diamond shape and a dark tip that matches up perfectly with these feathers on the belly of the Limpkin. That's a beautiful match.
Florida is the only place Limpkins can be found in the U.S., and they are on the state's list of protected species. Dove says the pythons pose a real threat to the North American Limpkin population.
This is not the first Limpkin we found in the prey remains of this species, and we also know they're eating their eggs.
Pythons first appeared in the Everglades in the late '70s. They're popular exotic pets in Florida, and may have been released by their owners, or escaped from backyard enclosures. Some estimates put the current Florida population in the tens of thousands, and Dove says the amount of devastation the snake is inflicting on native species makes it hard for her to see it as anything other than the villain of the story.
I love snakes and all animals, but I have to say, I have become -- my dislike for the snake has really intensified over the years.
Dove says she hopes her research will push policymakers to dedicate more resources to protecting native birds, before their remains end up in her lab. I'm Jonathan Wilson.
Want to learn more about the Feather ID Lab, and see exactly what a Limpkin looks like? You are in luck. We've got all sorts of information and photos on our website, metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and International law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.