The Perils of Bird-Plane Collisions

When airlines want to investigate dangerous bird strikes against planes, they turn to the head of the Smithsonian’s Feather Identification Lab

A US Air Force Boeing 707 disturbs a colony of sooty terns during takeoff. (© Peter Johnson / Corbis)

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What has been the trend in bird strikes over the last few decades?

It’s very hard to say. I can tell you there has been a definite increase in the awareness and reporting. When I started working [on this], we would get 300 strikes per year to identify. And now, this past year, we got 4000 strikes. It’s not really that bird strikes are happening more often, it’s that people are now reporting them more frequently and they are aware that if we can determine the species of bird involved, they can do something to prevent the damage from happening. Because of the increased education and awareness and reporting, the bird strike caseload has increased.

The interesting thing about all of this right now is that in the past 25 years or so, large birds in North America have increased population-wise. If you think about it, you never used to see a Canada goose 20 years ago and now they’re everywhere. The same thing with birds like bald eagles and white pelicans. And so as these large birds increase population-wise and proportionally over time, there are more of them around. And there are more aircraft flying, and so the hazard is increasing. And that’s a tough one to deal with.

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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