The thing with feathers
From ‘snarge’ to unidentified museum artifacts, forensic ornithologist Ildiko Szabo investigates bird mysteries big and small.
By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Ildiko Szabo holds up a plastic bag which appears to be filled with lint: it’s grey, you can make out some fluff, but not much else. But Szabo, an avian forensic morphologist at the University of British Columbia, isn’t doing laundry.
The bag contains ‘snarge’ — and a mystery.
“Snarge is a compound word from ‘snot’ and ‘garbage’,” says Szabo. “It refers to the residue left after a bird and a plane collide. BASH, or Bird/wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard, is what produces snarge.”
Bird strikes are as old as airplanes. The first one occurred when the Wright brothers took a plane for a spin in 1905. Perhaps the most infamous bird strike took place in October 1960 when a Lockheed L-188 Electra leaving Boston flew through a flock of common starlings. All four engines were damaged. Only 10 passengers survived the crash.
Airlines quickly began testing their engines to ensure they could withstand a bird strike. Nowadays, Szabo explains, airlines ‘shoot’ dead chickens or other dead poultry into an engine to test their performance. The minimum requirement is for engines to shut-down safely after ingesting a 1.8 kg (4 lb) bird. Some larger engines are rated for 3.6 kgs (8 lb). When an engine malfunctions outside of testing, airports and the army want to know if a bird was involved, and what type.
Why not simply do DNA testing? Sometimes there is blood or tissue, which can be sent to the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding at the University of Guelph. But that’s not always possible. If the blood or tissue has been subjected to excessive heat, or other conditions, DNA degrades and the tests may be inconclusive.
When an airplane turbine sucks in a bird, it does so at incredible speed, as if it were a giant vacuum cleaner, leaving only small fragments of tissue or feathers. Feather keratin can stand temperatures of 176°C (350°F) giving it a much better chance of surviving.
“As odd as it sounds,” says Szabo, “birds can go through a plane engine without leaving a blood trace. Feather ‘fluff,’ on the other hand, gets caught up in nooks and crannies. It is incredibly durable.”
When Szabo receives a package of snarge, she starts by making microscope slides for feather down microstructure analysis to determine which bird order it belongs to. Depending on the sample, she continues to use a compound microscope to identify it to a lower taxon, or moves directly to the next step. Species determination is confirmed by doing feather-to-feather comparison using the Beaty Biodiversity Museum’s vast bird collection and her own private feather collection.
“Bird identification helps airports develop wildlife management strategies,” Szabo says. “Our local airport, YVR, sends me snarge on a regular basis. They use the forensic reports to help assess their wildlife management programs.”
Birds of a feather
Szabo, originally a zoologist studying crustaceans, became interested in avian forensics after meeting Carla Dove of the Smithsonian Feather Forensics Lab. At the time there wasn’t anyone doing avian forensic morphology analysis in Canada.
Dove told Szabo the story of a Canadian private collector of anthropological artifacts who wanted to move his collection to the United States, but couldn’t get the items across the border until they were identified (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora makes such paperwork necessary). The people who could identify the objects were at the Smithsonian.
“It was a Catch-22,” Szabo recalls. “Carla convinced me that Canada needed someone trained in feather analysis, so she trained me.”
That’s how Szabo became the only certified avian forensic morphologist in Canada. The Beaty Biodiversity Museum, where Szabo serves as the Assistant Curator of the Cowan Tetrapod Collection, contains more than 21,000 bird specimens, providing the perfect setting for her work.
“It is important to have a lot of birds, you need to be able to see species variation,” she says as she points at a tray holding the carcasses of eight white owls.
One specimen per species is not enough. An avian forensic scientist needs to look at the differences between males, females and juveniles, plus in breeding and non-breeding plumage and every stage in between.
One of Szabo’s most fun assignments was identifying the feathers used in the hats of a Canadian costume exhibit which was headed to Seattle. The feathers had been highly modified. They were dyed, shaped, cut.
“They did not look remotely natural,” Szabo says. “You had European domestic goose dyed green, you had feathers glued together in interesting shapes.”
But like with snarge, DNA isn’t always an option. With textiles or with historical artifacts, destructive sampling is rarely permitted.
“You can’t pluck it,” Szabo says, “Not even the tiny-wee bit you need to make a microscope slide.”
Needle in a haystack
Last year Nuno Porto, a curator with the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at UBC, sought Szabo out. He was hoping Szabo could help determine the provenance of the birds and feathers of an artifact to go on display at MOA’s Amazonia: The Rights of Nature exhibit. Porto knew that the artifact — a ‘bandolier’ made of birds, beads and feathers — was from South America. But with 385 identified indigenous groups in the Amazonia, he wanted its origins narrowed down and confirmed.
This bandolier was donated to UBC in 1927 by Frank Burnett — in fact, Burnett’s collection of artifacts established the MOA. Burnett traveled by boat down the coast of South America and brought objects from his travels back to Canada. Some objects in his collection came with a great deal of background information.
Not the bandolier.
“We had a note. A single word which said ‘Ecuador?’” Porto explains. “But when I explored collections from Ecuador, nothing matching this artifact came up.”
“It was a needle in a haystack problem,” Szabo says. “Museums are full of objects like this, which have been removed from their cultural context, that have been orphaned.”
Porto thought the largest birds in the necklace might provide easy identification, but Andean cock-of-the-rock male specimens can only be differentiated to subspecies by eye pigmentation and vocal calls.
The smaller birds, like the manakin, were more useful and Szabo was able to narrow down their geographical provenance. With that information, Porto was able to track its cultural authorship. The bandolier was likely created by the Asháninka, one of the largest indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon. Porto contacted an anthropologist at the University of Brasília, who got in touch with his Asháninka research partners. They recognized the artifact. It was a txoshiki. They explained that it would have been worn by a child as an everyday object, some 100 years ago. The Asháninka believe the world is divided in layers — birds are prized because they can travel through the layers.
“Nowadays artifacts like this are not produced anymore. Birds are used for decoration, but it is older men who wear them,” Porto says. “The Asháninka have always traded widely in the Amazonia, and it is possible that is how this txoshiki made its way to a port in Ecuador, where it might have been acquired.”
New kids on the block
Szabo’s had also helped the MOA identify traditional Maori cloaks, including a korowai, which incorporate kiwi feathers. One of the cloaks she was asked to examine was different.
“I looked at a cape and I remember saying ‘That’s interesting, that’s turkey,’ and the curator said ‘Turkey, like Thanksgiving turkey?’ and I said ‘Yes.’”
Turkeys were released into the wild in New Zealand the 1860s and by the 1890s they were common on the north east coast of the island. This meant the cape might be older than originally thought.
“It makes sense they would use this new bird, the new kid on the block,” Szabo explains.
But turkey or kiwi, why is it important to perform this kind of work? It helps museums classify objects, it enriches their description, and it places them in their proper culture. Every item like the txoshiki tells a story. A cloak might be assigned to the right culture but belong to a different era.
Szabo hopes she can continue collaborating with anthropologists. At MOA there are about 5,000 artifacts under the label ‘feather’ which could be studied more closely, allowing for an interdisciplinary project tying zoologists and anthropologists together. That’s a lot of stories to be told.
Visit the Beaty Biodiversity Museum to discover more about our bird collection and the work of our researchers.