Evidence from the Skies

Eugene Gilbert in Bleriot XI attacked by eagle over Pyrenees in 1911 depicted in this painting
Eugene Gilbert in Bleriot XI attacked by eagle over Pyrenees in 1911 depicted in this painting Wikimedia Commons

"But why do you need so many?"

It's a question we're asked over and over again about the Smithsonian's immense collections. Why, for instance, must we have so many specimens of mosquitoes and beetles and rocks and plants and birds and ...? The inventory of the Smithsonian collections could march like columns of ants down the page. What's to be gained from filling rooms and laboratories with so much evidence of nature's diversity?

But what can seem like excess may be only a reasonable degree of sufficiency. The value of many of the collections resides in their comprehensiveness. They can't be too large. We can take a lesson from the birds. In a vast space on the top floor of the National Museum of Natural History, aisle after aisle of cases stacked almost to the ceiling hold more than 621,000 specimens of birds. The origins of the bird collection go back to the early days of the Smithsonian and to the great insight of Spencer Baird, our second Secretary, who realized that the Institution should document the biology of the world. The oldest specimens date from the early 1800s; they were already old when Baird began his work.

The collection, one of the world's largest, documents perhaps some 80 percent of the more than 9,000 species of living birds. As important, it documents the biological, ecological, spatial and temporal diversity within many individual species. To an untrained eye, for example, the red-tailed hawks laid in rows in a drawer will appear to be different species, and yet they are merely male and female, young and old, differing sometimes simply by the circumstance of where they lived. The collection has always been available for scientific study and research, and that painstaking work has had a remarkable, and quite unforeseen, benefit.

In October 1960, a Lockheed Electra plane taking off from Logan Airport in Boston hit a flock of starlings, and the ensuing crash killed 62 people. In November 1975, a DC-10 leaving JFK Airport in New York caught gulls in its engines. The takeoff was aborted, and though all 139 passengers and crew were evacuated safely, the plane caught fire and was destroyed. In September 1995, a flock of Canada geese brought down a U.S. Air Force E-3 AWACS radar plane in Alaska, killing all 24 crew members. These three incidents are among the most unnerving, but contact between birds and airplanes is not unusual. The Federal Aviation Administration received some 4,000 reports of bird strikes last year. The Air Force receives nearly 3,000 additional such reports and loses, on average, one aircraft a year. You'd think it would be no contest, bird against massive machine. And yet a one-ounce bird can hit a moving plane with the force of a bullet. And larger birds can cause crippling and catastrophic damage.

An increasing concern about bird-plane collisions brought the Air Force (as well as commercial airlines and engine manufacturers) to the Smithsonian for help. In our Natural History Museum's Department of Vertebrate Zoology, ornithologists Roxie Laybourne and Carla Dove identify the birds that have struck planes. Through their detailed examination of the structures of feathers, and correlations of the identifications with the dates and times of day and the altitudes, longitudes and latitudes of the incidents, they have contributed to an invaluable database. Analysis and interpretation of the data reveal patterns that can lead to preemptive action — such as managing airport habitats more carefully, altering flight patterns and building stronger engines.

The bird remains sent to the museum are often fragmentary indeed. Even so, Dove, drawing on her expertise and experience, can sometimes make an identification outright, without the need for microscopic examination. Lives may depend on the outcome of her observations, and she can know as much as she does only because those aisles of museum cases have been filled so assiduously over the years.

Rarely have the virtues of "excess" been more apparent.

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