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Why Is D.C.'s Feather ID Lab Studying Snakes?

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Forensic ornithologist Carla Dove holds limpkin specimens at the Smithsonian's Feather ID Lab.
Jonathan Wilson
Forensic ornithologist Carla Dove holds limpkin specimens at the Smithsonian's Feather ID Lab.

Deep within the bowels of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, scientists at the Feather ID Lab have spent the past four decades studying what happens when humans and birds compete for the same airspace... it's the often messy science of bird-plane collisions, or birdstrikes.

The lab has no shortage of work helping the military and civilian airports determine which birds are colliding with planes, but in the past few years, the lab has also been stepping out of its avian comfort zone, and into the digestive tracts of Burmese pythons.

"I love birds. I didn't think I'd ever be working with Burmese Pythons," says Carla Dove, head of the Smithsonian's Division of Birds. She is a forensic ornithologist by training.

The opportunity to work with prey remains from pythons 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," she says. "It's eating everything in its path."

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, my dislike for the snake has really intensified over the years."

[Music: "Learning to Fly" by Pickin' On Series from Pickin' On Tom Petty ]

Photos: Feather ID

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