More than 82,000 birds and mammals collided with civilian aircraft between 1990 and 2007, causing more than $332 million in damage, according the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) National Wildlife Strike Database, made public for the first time today. And those are just the known incidents—the FAA estimates that only 20 percent of such collisions are ever reported.

Prompted in part by the January 15 emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York's Hudson River after being struck by a flock of geese, as well as by an Associated Press Freedom of Information Act request, the FAA has reluctantly opened the database via the Web. The agency had sought to bar public access to the information, claiming in the Federal Register that there was "a serious potential that information related to bird strikes will not be submitted because of fear that the disclosure of raw data could unfairly cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter," reported last month.

But the National Transportation Safety Board objected, saying in a statement that open access to information about this aviation hazard will better help regulators "combat a phenomenon that brought down an airliner [US Airways flight 1549] and possibly a transport-category helicopter earlier this year."

The FAA bowed to pressure, explaining its change of heart in a statement earlier this week by saying that information could be made available to the public now "without jeopardizing aviation safety." The agency acknowledges that it has cut "a very small amount of data in the database containing privacy information, such as personal phone numbers."

Although the database is a bit clunky to use (the text-heavy, no-nonsense user interface lets the user search by date, location and bird type), the agency has promised to make it easier to use over the next four months. The FAA also acknowledges that there's no standard reporting format for submitting the data, so "comparisons between individual airports or airlines may be misleading," the agency states on its Airport Wildlife Hazard Mitigation home page, where the link to the database can be found.

Birds (gulls in particular) were the most common cause of an air strike, although there are also reports of aircraft colliding with deer, horses and even a dog while still on the ground. The most deadly bird strikes were caused by flocks of starlings, according to an FAA report last June on wildlife strikes, including a 1960 incident that killed 62 people in Massachusetts and a 1996 military crash that killed 34 people in the Netherlands. (pdf)

Image of an F16 bird strike © Micah Maziar via Flickr