Searching For Ways To Safely Share The Air

Scientists probing the bird strike that forced US Airways flight 1549 to make an emergency landing in NYC's Hudson River released a photo this week of a feather found in the engine. CBS News correspondent Bianca Solorzano reports their investigation is part of a critical effort to make airports safer, using high-tech tools and ancient weapons.

At McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, the weapon of choice to defend against bird strikes has feathers, razor-sharp talons, and can dive-bomb at more than 200 m.p.h.

Falconer Andrew Barnes uses 9-year-old "Nantucket" to keep problem birds clear from airbase runways. He explains, "He is a predator. He is near the top of the food chain. And almost all other birds are below him in the food chain, so they're food."

Nantucket is one of 10 falcons used at the base to patrol the area. Others eventually learn to stay away.

Bird strikes dropped 80 percent the first year McGuire started the program. The number has remained at that low for more than a decade.

Airports across the country are thinking about the best ways to get rid of birds. At New York's LaGuardia, where Flight 1549 was flying out of, that's meant cutting grass and shrubs on a full-time basis.

But airfield managers need to know what type of birds are hitting their planes in order to make their airports an unattractive habitat.

Bird identification comes from nearly 200 miles away, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

CBS News was given exclusive access to their feather identification lab, where director Carla Dove and her team examine the "black boxes" of a bird strike investigation.

"Yes, we're trying to prevent damage," Dove said. "But we're also trying to save birds."

The lab analyzes dozens of packages it receives daily, containing clues such as feathers, claws and other tiny bird remnants knows as "snarge."

Dove and her team sampled 4,600 bird strikes last year, checking out feather structure to DNA. With the help of the Smithsonian's collection of 62,000 stuffed bird specimens, they can successfully ID a bird 98 percent of the time.

She explains, "If you know for example it's a bird that likes to nest on flat areas with low growing grass, if you just let the grass grow sometimes that will discourage those species from coming into the area.

"It's simple, but it's a complicated process, there's no silver bullet to prevent bird strikes."

Back on the airfield at McGuire AFB, "silver bullets" continue to take flight.

Says Barnes, "You fly a falcon and you see those thousand birds leave the airfield. And you know yourself that you've prevented that aircraft from ingesting those birds into its engine. And that crew is safely on the ground, it is extremely gratifying."