When I wrote about European starlings and their complex North American origin story, I didn’t expect readers to be so intrigued by one particular word in the article: snarl. But like emails, Tweets And other reactions poured in, it became clear that this six-letter word with the sound of the formality and the field of scientific research that produced it were worthy of closer examination.
On October 4, 1960, a Lockheed L-188 Electra sank its nose in Boston Harbor seconds after takeoff. Of the 72 crew and passengers, only 10 survived.
As investigators sort through the debris, they kept finding balls of what appeared to be black feathers. This material eventually became known as snarge.
The best investigators could believe that the Electra’s engines swallowed a flock of birds, but no one could say what kind of birds could bring down a plane of this size. So the investigators called in Roxy Laiburn, an ornithologist at the Smithsonian Institution who was an expert on feathers.
With a large collection of museum specimens at her disposal, Ms. Laiburn compared the microscopic patterns in the feathers. What destroyed the Electra did not belong to a large-bodied bird, such as an eagle, a turkey or a crow. Instead, it was the feathers of the diminutive European starling.
In the following decades, airports would hire wildlife biologists to take the information Ms. Liburn provided and use it to discourage some bird species from deviating around their flight paths. In turn, Ms. Liburn became a legend in science and air transport safety known as the Feather Lady. It would be totally justified to call her the Queen of Snarge.
Carla Dove, program director at the Smithsonian’s Feather Identification Lab and successor to Ms. Liburn, said she wasn’t sure who first coined the term snarge, but she first heard it at the museum.
The Snarge could be a stuffing of Canada goose inside an aircraft engine. Or it could be a broken and burnt gull feather strewn along the runway. The Snarge can be as small as a rusty red tinge on the nose of an airplane.
But no matter what form it takes, every piece of snarl is different — and all of these crises matter.
Back in the days of Mrs. Liburn, physical comparison of samples under a microscope was the industry standard.
“She cleaned and washed the feathers, then matched the pattern, color, and texture to the museum samples,” said Dr. Dove.
Dr. Dove and her colleagues now also use DNA analysis because the chronic sample may not always contain an identifiable feather piece. In some cases, samples may be too small or degraded to produce DNA, so they solve the puzzle with a combination of techniques.
Determining the origin of the clique has real-world consequences. After starlings were involved in the Electra accident, which remains the deadliest ever due to a bird collision, the aviation industry began making engines with those collisions in mind. Many aircraft models are now expected to survive the injury of a bird weighing up to eight pounds.
But even these technological advances don’t mean the plane is invulnerable to bird strike, Chesley B. learned. .
Of course, even small animals can have a deadly effect.
“The starlings have been referred to as feathered lead,” said Richard Dolbert, scientific advisor to the Airport Wildlife Hazards Program, part of the USDA. “It’s a small, bushy, chunky bird, with a higher body density than a lot of other bird species.”
Since the 1960s, the Feather Identification Laboratory has worked with the FAA and wildlife biologists at every major airport to identify problem birds and discourage them from loitering nearby.
Management options include capturing and moving some birds or scaring others with trained falcons, noise cannons, and distress calls. In rare cases, they resort to lethal measures.
Other strategies include getting rid of standing water, removing trash or food scraps, and placing nets over body areas.
“Really, we just want to make the airport as uncomfortable for birds as possible,” said Dr. Dolbert.
Despite these efforts, decoys occur. Wilbur Wright crushed a flock of birds on the way back in 1905, and in the modern era, with more flights in the air than ever before, planes strike birds every day. In 2019 alone, the FAA documented 17,358 strikes. The vast majority amount to little or no damage, fortunately.
Perhaps most interestingly, Snarge is not limited to birds.
Bats and insects turn into ambush. And there are more exotic species appearing, including frogs, turtles, snakes, and even cats and rabbits.
Sometimes, the bird of prey is afraid of the approach of an aircraft and drops everything it carries in its claws, which is then sucked into a jet engine. It’s also possible that when a bird hits a plane, the contents of a predator’s stomach litter with the rest of the bird, the DNA still shows up in genetic tests, Dove said.
It’s never a dull day when you are in charge.