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The Museums Pt. II

An ornithological collection is not a bunch of stuffed birds. Devoid of 15-some data points, dutifully transcribed on individualized tags, they would be merely wonders of preservation. Every bird has a unique number, date of collection, a preparer, a locale, standard name (Latin name), and the list extends the more recent the specimen. From a locale you can extrapolate historical species distributions. The preparer can add clue to a historical record. The bird itself combed with tantamount outcomes.

To be fair, skins are not good for one thing; looking at size and shape. One of the unfortunate sides of preparation, not matter how skilled and careful the preparer is – a bird will not retain original shape. Think of a sock being filled with something other than a foot, it can be radically misshapen. Plumage, molt, coloration all can be duly noted but discussions of size or shape in a skin is off limits – poorly shaped skins border on comical or bizzare. Luckily skeletons are kept and collected to record size. Thankfully, wing spreads also largely retain their original conformation.

The Burke has over 100,000 birds and about 3,400 species represented. Location in mind, they have an obvious bias towards Western North America and Northern Pacific Seabirds. The most important species are from expeditions in Northern Russia that have been conducted for 12 years and from 15 years in the Solomon Islands. These represent a highly significant body of data, likely the only on bird populations in those areas. One could travel there, conduct point counts, mist net birds, and come away with data as well but field work relies on a preexisting question.

Field investigations, conducted in years to come, cannot be predicted. If someone is curious about the parasite load of Rufous Hummingbirds from the 1980s compared to the 2000’s (just a hypothetical), there’s a good chance a natural history museum would have data to help answer that question. Even a meticulous banding operation wouldn’t reveal a holistic data.

A specific case that showing the necessity of skins comes in the form of stable isotope analysis. This process takes into account the different isotopes of common elements and revealing secrets of animals lives. Isotopes can be mapped to different regions of the globe, different foods, etc. being unique to those locales or foods. Mindful analysis can help one determine the trophic level of various seabirds (basically what they are eating) or help distinguish between migratory and resident populations of Canada geese.

While collectors covet the specimens they seek out, there few who relish the act of collection. Excitement over the chase, the hunt, the exhausting and harsh work of locating specific quarry, yes. However, barring the few, killing is merely the unfortunate part of collecting. They honor the specimen through hard work to preserve it possibly for centuries to come. A few individuals shot, memorialized and useful for tantamount, for as long as they are properly cared for. Surely the objectors can oblige that? There is no massacre, a trip has a small list of birds, they seek them out and take their quota. Negligible when you take into account disease, predation, and all the trappings of modern human impact – large buildings, cars, domestic pets, and habitat destruction. In some cases we even immortalize birds we’ve ushered out of existence (birds like the Carolina Parakeet, which, if someone alive saw them in the wild, would be over 106 years old). To be fair, there is strong evidence that a flurry of specimen grabbing of the quickly disappearing Ivory-billed Woodpecker helped its demise. Alas not every person will deny covetous greed, especially when money or prestige is involved.

Birds are the most widespread and diverse vertebrates on the planet. They’ve flourished in every feasible locale. Even in the advent of fancy cameras, concentrated efforts to collect date unobtrusively, to develop hands off approaches, there are simply some birds we cannot keep proper tabs on. Albatrosses are a prime example, spending most of their lives roaming the pelagic waters, only occasionally breeding on logistically inaccessible islands. It makes sense that their molt strategies are complicated because they can’t molt the way many birds would or they’d lose their ability to efficiently harness air currents. Albatross molt is so complicated that I will admit I know little and don’t intend to delve any deeper for this piece. However, even the briefest of comprehension of molt strategies in these long living, low fecundity species, breeding on isolated, vulnerable island gives their conservation a step up. Feathers being a defining characteristic of birds, dictate a lot in their lives. Naked apes will do well to continue to master molt.

With brevity in mind, this is where the discussion ends. Possible this wasn’t convincing and you find shooting birds cruel and museums barbaric. The hope is that you’ve seen the light and realized that how we understand populations, natural history, and biodiversity can be augmented by invaluable museum collections. Simply, if we don’t know the birds, how can we expect to save them?

Please give me your thoughts negative or otherwise and check out the rest of the photos I took.

(Thanks is due to Rob Faucett for allowing me access to the collections)

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