Each day, Jim Whatton
walks into work at the National Museum of National History in Washington, D.C.
, to start an investigation into a new case of snarge—what is left when a bird strikes a plane.
As a research assistant with the Feather Identification Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution, the 2007 Ball State graduate is a member of the museum's group of forensic ornithologists assigned to identify the species of a particular bird after a collision. When a bird strike occurs, there usually is little left of the animal.
"We never know what the day holds until we check the mail," says Whatton, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, before attending Ball State. "We receive a variety of animal remains mailed to us after a bird strike. Sometimes there are whole feathers and other times we get only small bits of tissue and feathers. So, it is a challenge to figure out the species of bird using forensic tools such as DNA, feather microstructure, and whole feather analysis."
Birds have been a problem for the aviation industry since the first manned flights.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lists the first official bird strike in 1905 by Wilbur Wright, while the first death by bird occurred in 1912. Birds are blamed for about $600 million in damage to civilian and military aircraft annually, and more than 170 deaths have been reported for civilians since 1990.
A bird strike that drew international attention occurred in early 2009 when a US Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River. In that case, everyone survived. The Feather Identification Lab identified the birds as Canada geese.
"We get about 4,500 sets of bird remains from strikes every year," Whatton says. "We receive most of the strikes from the U.S. Air Force, but we also receive remains from the Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration."
He said the military is particularly interested in reducing bird strikes, since such planes can cost millions of dollars to replace or repair. One way to reduce the number of bird strikes is to find a new home for a particular species causing the problems. For example, moving or filling in a pond home to ducks could eliminate potential risks.
Since Whatton is passionate about birds, he works at the right place. The museum has been collecting avian specimens before the invention of the flying machine. The Division of Birds stores samples of about 85 percent of the world's bird species, so it is a perfect resource for identifying feather fragments.
Whatton, who joined the Smithsonian shortly after graduation, credits Ball State for his interest in birds and field biology. His interest led to membership in the Department of Biology's
student chapter of The Wildlife Society
, serving as its president for two years. Timothy Carter
, a Ball State biology faculty member, says Whatton set an example for other students when it came to his classroom work as well as his dedication to field study.
"Simply, he is a great guy, and I am glad he got his dream job," Carter says. "When he was one of our students, he did a fantastic job leading the organization and getting things done. At the same time, we worked together on research projects that made a real difference." Photos by Chip Clark/Smithsonian