When I wrote about European starlings and their complex history of the origins of North America, I didn’t expect readers to be so fascinated by one particular word in the article: snarge. But like emails, tweets and other reviews poured in, it became clear that this rough-sounding six-letter word and the field of research that created it deserved more careful study.
On October 4, 1960, a Lockheed L-188 Electra plunged into Boston Harbor just seconds after takeoff. Of the 72 crew members and passengers, only 10 survived.
As investigators cleared the rubble, they continued to find balls of what looked like black feathers. Such material eventually became known as snarge.
The best investigators might have guessed that Electra’s engines had swallowed a flock of birds, but no one could say what kind of bird could take down a plane of that size. So the researchers called Roxy Leburn, an ornithologist at the Smithsonian Institution who was an expert on feathers.
With a huge collection of museum specimens at her disposal, Ms. Leiburn compares microscopic models in feathers. What struck Electra did not belong to a bird with a large body, such as a vulture, a turkey or a crow. Rather, the feathers were from to the small European starling.
In the coming decades, airports would hire wildlife biologists to take the information provided by Ms Leiburn and use it to discourage certain bird species from crowding their flight routes. In turn, Ms. Leiburn will become a legend in the science and safety of air traffic, known as the Lady of the Feathers. You will be just as justified in calling her the Queen of Snarge.
Carla Dove, program manager for the Smithsonian Institution’s feather identification laboratory and successor to Ms Leiburn, said she was not sure who first coined the term snarge, but that it was the first time she had heard it in a museum.
A snarge can be a bundle of Canadian geese placed in an aircraft engine. Or it may be a broken and burnt seagull feather strewn across the runway. Snarge can be as small as a rusty red spot on the nose of an airplane.
But no matter what form it takes, every part of nagging is different – and every scam is important.
As early as Mrs. Leiburn’s time, the physical comparison of specimens under a microscope was the industry standard.
“She cleaned the feathers and washed them, then matched the pattern, colors and texture to the museum specimens,” said Dr. Dove.
Dr. Dove and her colleagues now also use DNA analysis, as the food sample may not always include a recognizable piece of feather. In some cases, samples may be too small or degraded to produce DNA, so they solve the mystery with a combination of techniques.
And determining the origin of the projectile has real consequences. After starlings were involved in the Electra crash, which remains the deadliest ever caused by a bird strike, the airline began producing engines with these collisions. Many aircraft models can now be expected to survive a bird strike of up to eight kilograms.
But even that technological advancement doesn’t mean the plane is invulnerable to bird strikes, as Chesley B. Solenberger III and his passengers learned in 2009 when Canadian geese shot down their Airbus A320 at what is now known as the Hudson’s Miracle. .
Of course, even small animals can be deadly.
“Hornets are called feathered bullets,” said Richard Dolbir, a scientific adviser on the airport’s wildlife hazard program, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “They are a dense, large small bird, with a higher body density than many other bird species.”
Since the 1960s, the Feather Identification Laboratory has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration and wildlife biologists at every major airport to identify problem birds and discourage them from hanging around.
Management options include capturing and relocating some birds or scaring others with trained falcons, noise cannons and distress calls. In rare cases, they resort to deadly measures.
Other strategies include removing stagnant water, removing debris or leftover food, and placing nets over sleeping areas.
“Really, we just want to make the airport as inconvenient as possible for the birds,” said Dr. Dolbir.
Despite these efforts, fraud is happening. Wilbur Wright crushed a flock of birds back in 1905, and today, with more flights in the air than ever, planes hit birds every day. In 2019 alone, the FAA documented 17,358 strikes. Most of them have little or no damage, fortunately.
Perhaps most interesting of all: Snarge is not limited to birds.
Bats and insects become predators. And there are even more curious species that appear, including frogs, turtles, snakes and even cats and rabbits.
Sometimes a bird of prey will be frightened by an approaching plane and will drop everything it holds in its claws, which is then sucked into a jet engine. It is also possible that in a collision between a bird and an airplane, the contents of the predator’s stomach will be scattered along with the rest of the bird and that DNA will still be shown in genetic tests, said Dr. Dove.
It is never a boring day when you are in charge of the bait.