Bird guts contain clues to reducing plane crashes

In 2008, one or more American white pelicans smashed into a Cessna airplane flying near an Oklahoma airport. The plane crashed in the woods, and the five people on board died.

That incident is just one of thousands of so-called “birdstrikes” that damage or bring down airplanes every year. Nearly 10,000 bird-plane collisions occurred in the US in 2011, and 221 people have died from birdstrikes in the last 25 years. The annual costs incurred by the accidents top a billion dollars around the world.

Now researchers have proposed a way to limit these collisions: Find out what the birds are eating and make high-traffic areas less palatable. By cutting back the birds’ food supply near airports, managers could encourage the birds to move somewhere less dangerous. (Hat tip: Science.)

The team tested the idea at Perth Airport in Australia, which is situated on 2,105 hectares of land that house everything from echidnas to feral cats. Staff members and ornithologists collected bird remains, such as blood and feathers, from airplanes and sent the samples to a forensics lab for analysis. Researchers also dissected 77 dead birds found on or near the runways and studied the contents of the animals’ gastrointestinal (GI) tracts.

The birds included pigeons, brown falcons, barn owls, and rose-breasted cockatoos. Inside the birds’ GI tracts, the scientists found the DNA of house mice, mosquito fish, crayfish, spiders, grasshoppers, and grass. The grasshopper species might be the Australian plague locust, which managers have been trying to control with fungicide. And the cockatoos had eaten weeds from the genus Erodium.

Airport managers could reduce birdstrikes by controlling rodents, locusts, and weeds in the area, the authors suggest. And since birds prefer to forage in short grass, letting the grass grow long could also deter them from flocking to airports. Roberta Kwok | 13 December 2013

Source: Coghlan, M.L. et al. 2013. Metabarcoding avian diets at airports: Implications for birdstrike hazard management planning. Investigative Genetics doi: 10.1186/2041-2223-4-27.

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