Birds can cause serious damage to aircraft. A recent example is the 2009 US Airways flight that hit a flock of Canada geese on take-off and had to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River. In this case no one was seriously injured but there are many examples of fatalities caused by bird strikes.
Identifying the remains of birds that have hit aircraft, called snarge, can be an important step in preventing future collisions.
Last year Te Papa curator Alan Tennyson was sent the remains of a bird that had collided with a plane over Coromandel Peninsula. The plane was the winner – all that remained of the bird was a foot, a few feathers and a lump of tissue. Alan identified it as a long-tailed skua and I was able to confirm his identification using DNA sequence obtained from the snarge.
Long tailed skuas breed in the Arctic and are recorded in New Zealand only rarely. Therefore, this species is unlikely to pose an ongoing risk to New Zealand aircraft.
Our identification of this long-tailed skua does provide some other useful information – it demonstrates that this species is capable of flying at very high altitudes (it collided with the plane at an altitude of over 4km!). Birds that undertake high altitude flight usually do it as part of long distance migration; however, our New Zealand bird was struck outside the usual migration periods.
We have just published a paper detailing our long-tailed skua finding with co-authors from Unitec and Auckland airport in the scientific journal Notornis.
As an aside, whilst researching for this blog, I noticed that Wikipedia reports that an unspecified New Zealand airport uses an unusual method to discourage birds. Electrified mats are apparently used to deter worms, which attract gulls. I haven’t been able to confirm this claim and would be interested to hear if anyone can provide more information.