Collections of a Feather

Kaua’i O’o (Moho braccatus), now extinct, and other Hawaiian songbirds, at the department of ornithology, American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Daniel Lewis.

When I was working on my recent book about Robert Ridgway, the Smithsonian’s first curator of birds, I got to thinking about the large sets of stuffed birds, or “study skins,” that he and his fellow bird professionals kept in drawers and cabinets in natural history museums.

I’m well underway with a new project—an environmental history of five birds from my home state, Hawaii—and I can’t resist taking a closer look at sets of those study skins myself. I’ve now paid visits to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, and the Bishop Museum in Hawaii to get a glimpse of the remains of the birds themselves—common, threatened, or long gone.

Just as archival materials in the aggregate—letters by the dozens, hundreds, or thousands—provide useful grist for a research mill, so too do these bird collections, similarly arrayed by scientists in rows of dozens or even hundreds, reveal new things about the world. Millions of dead birds fill the drawers and cabinets of museums around the world. But they are more than just feathery accessories used for museum displays and the amusements of visitors. They are the objects of often-intense scientific study, and for a wide range of purposes. These study skins tell a tremendous number of diverse stories, based on information that scientists can glean from the plumage, morphology, size, and even parasites and insects found on the skins. In the aggregate, though, they also tell a vital story—one about evolution, speciation, and the changes that animals go through over space and time.

Three specimens of the Kaua’i O’o (Moho braccatus).

One essential use of these study skins has been to determine evidence of species change. Lay out a long series of the same species of birds and sort them by, say, beak size, and suddenly a whole world might emerge. A long run of stuffed birds, tucked away in those museum drawers and cabinets, allows variations in physical condition to become apparent, and the upper and lower ranges of sizes, colors, and shapes of body parts of the same species let naturalists catch birds in the act of evolving, as it were.

There is another unexpected element to these study skins, too, and it’s one that’s related to the manuscript record: the small descriptive tags that are attached to birds by collectors that describe the bird species, as well as its size, sex, location collected, and—depending on the era—more lavish details such as the stomach contents of the bird, the specific habitat in which it was found, and so on.

Both archivists and bird collections managers tend to be generous souls, overseeing materials that are the idiosyncratic passions of their users, and they instinctively understand the benefit of in-person investigation. They facilitate it, and often encourage it, even with the rarest of their holdings. Being able to see an original letter is the best. It lets one read the handwriting better, lets one smell it (Aha! Such-and-such a writer was a smoker!), feel its texture, and absorb a thousand other subtle characteristics that can inform a writer’s narrative. In much the same way, seeing an original bird in the flesh—or at least the skin and feathers—can tell someone a great deal about a bird. For instance, some Hawaiian birds were known to have an extremely musky, almost overpowering odor—what one 19th-century naturalist likened to an old wet rug. No one knows the purpose of this smell, which was common to one (and only one) family of Hawaiian birds, all of which are now extinct. But to get a little whiff of the much-faded smell is to assimilate new information not available at a distance. Even in the modern digital age, it’s worth taking the time to slow down and smell the bird.

Lewis’s book, The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds, is published by Yale University Press.

For more on this story, check out News Bytes in the spring/summer 2012 issue of Huntington Frontiers, downloadable in PDF form here.

Daniel Lewis is the Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology and the head of the manuscripts department at The Huntington.

5 thoughts on “Collections of a Feather

  1. I cannot look at these dead specimens – they make me sad. I wish there’d been a warning. thanks. I scrolled down quickly to write this comment.

  2. I agree that the photos are painful to see. And probably inadvisable. I think the article could be better-illustrated with photographs of individual feathers or details. But pansworth of dozens and dozens of dead birds may induce many prospective readers to avoid reading the article in order to avoid the photos.

    I hope that scientists will work harder to discover ways to take fewer ‘samples’ of nature, and make far better use of those so that fewer animals die. When I consider the tonnage of dead animals in archives, university storage, and other places, it is very disheartening. Hopefully, scientists and academics are now making far greater use of internet and sharing-technology to ensure the fewest possible such acquisitions.

  3. It’s important to understand how valuable study specimens are to science and to conservation efforts. Museum researchers absolutely do their utmost to avoid duplicating effort and to use existing specimens first. There are databases on the internet for exactly this purpose.

    Sometimes new specimens need to be collected and unfortunately museum researchers toil against a variety of misconceptions about how they undertake their research. For example, every new species on the planet was originally described by one or more specimens in museum collections. The way researchers figured out they were different from other species is to compare many individuals from many populations. Such is the nature of statistics. This is not just research from long ago, but research that is still happening today. New biodiversity is constantly being described by museum scientists, who are driven by the desire to make that biodiversity known to the world at large so that whole populations and species can be protected. They feel it is worth the sacrifice of some small number of individuals to do that. Again, museum scientists do everything they can to make sure their individual sampling is guided by best practices in biology and statistics, so that nothing is collected that is not necessary. They submit willingly to an enormous permitting process where every individual taken must be justified and accounted for.

    The total yearly take by museum collectors is something like 21,000 birds/year. But do you own a house? Window kills approach 3.5 million birds/year. Do you drive a car? Road kills approach 60 million birds/year. Own an outdoor cat? Untold millions of bird kills per year. Scientific collecting is in the fact the only form of bird mortality that goes on to the benefit the populations and species of the individuals sacrificed.

  4. Wow. What gives? It’s harder to stomach the depeletion of habitat than to appreciate the importance of field studies and collection of specimen & learn about the environment and habitat of the birds. It is truly a rare glimpse you have shared into this realm of scientific study.

  5. The University of Utah contains the largest collection of bird and mammal specimens in the State of Utah. Dozens of graduate students and ornithologists have benefited from their availability and the data associated with them. As research interests have changed including the retirement of professors who were traditional field biologists, the Natural History Museum of Utah was given curatorial responsibility for over 44,000 specimens which were threatened by lack of use. New technology, including DNA research, has provided new information and usage to these collections. A qualified curator (PhD)manages them along with volunteers who ensure their continued care for many years to come

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