WAMU 88.5 : Metro Connection

Filed Under:

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

Play associated audio
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

NPR

Under The Streets Of Naples, A Way Out For Local Kids

A priest in Naples' tough Sanità neighborhood has put local kids — some from mob families — to work restoring underground catacombs full of early Christian art. The result? 40,000 tourists a year.
NPR

On Your Mark, Get Set, Grow: A Guide To Speedy Vegetables

Impatient gardeners don't have to wait for summer to harvest salad fixings. A surprising variety of crops will bring homegrown produce to your table in as little as three weeks.
NPR

Holy Bible Could Become Louisiana's Official Book

Lawmakers have proposed a bill that would make the Bible the state's official book, but critics say it is unconstitutional and would open Louisiana up to legal challenges.
NPR

When Parents Are The Ones Too Distracted By Devices

Parents often complain that smartphones keep their kids distracted from conversation. What happens when it's the other way around, when kids can't get their smartphone-glued parents' attention?

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.