For the Birds Radio Program: Museum Collections

Original Air Date: March 6, 2009 Rerun Dates: March 19, 2014; March 12, 2010; Feb. 22, 2010

Museum collections may seem morbid and old fashioned, but much can still be learned from them.

Duration: 4′41″


When I started birding, I spent a lot of time at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. I’d study each specimen on display, focusing on bill size and shape, color patterns, learning to recognize the various orders and families. One day I might spend hours trying to find each specimen in my field guide, the next I might quiz myself by trying to remember what each bird was before looking at its little sign. Sometimes I couldn’t stop gazing at the gorgeous outliers-the birds of paradise and quetzal and tropical hummingbirds—other times I’d search out the homey, simple chickadees and jays and doves. These birds were all quite dead, which made me sad, but on the other hand, they were way more cooperative for a neophyte learning identification than living birds were.

The last time I went to the Field Museum, the big bird exhibit was gone, the specimens tucked into storage drawers and cases to make room for more trendy stuff. That was a couple years ago, before I took my job at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Ironically, at the time I was visiting the Field Museum so long ago, the curator of the bird collection was John Fitzpatrick, who is now the Director of the Cornell Lab. Back then I’d never have had the courage to talk to any of the staff, much less the curator. Now I get to spend time in the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, which is housed right at the Lab. I don’t get that many opportunities to get down there, but what a resource to have at hand!

Although living birds are far more satisfactory on just about every level to watch, and of course to listen to, there’s a lot to be learned from specimens. That’s why since I started birding, I’ve always made it a point to save dead birds to bring to my local university collection. My current apartment is in a beautiful forested wetland, but it’s on a busy road, and very often when I walk Photon we come upon dead birds killed by cars driving through way too fast for the natural conditions. One morning last week I was rejoicing hearing a junco singing his ringing trill; that afternoon he was dead on the road. He was too squished to bring to the Cornell collection—in the year I’ve been here, only two birds have been in good enough condition to bring to the museum—one chickadee and one Yellow-throated Vireo. Crows patrol the road throughout the day picking up dead birds and dragging freshly killed squirrels off the road. Crows eat carrion but prefer it fresh, and my road furnishes them with plenty of fresh supplies every day. I’d gone over 20 years without killing anything myself, but this year I killed a squirrel and a grouse. When people complain about burgeoning crow numbers, we’ve only our driving habits to blame. I’m moving to a smaller apartment within walking distance of work next month so I won’t be part of this particular problem anymore.

One of the most interesting uses of dead birds is to learn about variations within a species. A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out the drawer of White-winged and Red Crossbills to check out which direction their mandibles crossed. In Red Crossbills, it’s supposed to be 50-50, and sure enough 22 of 41 Red Crossbills in the collection crossed one way, 19 the other. But in White-winged Crossbills, a much higher percentage of birds have lower bills crossing left to right than right to left—in our collection it was 32 of 46 birds, or 70 percent. There are many arcane but interesting things to be learned from these specimens. It’s not fair and makes me sad that their lives have been cut short, but somehow finding at least some scientific value in their bodies makes their deaths a little less meaningless.