Category Archives: The Collection at CMNH

The bird collection at Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Surprisingly Poisonous

Hooded pitohui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Hooded pitohui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that your fingers will go numb or burn if you handle this bird?  You'll be lucky that's all that happens.  This bird is poisonous!

Though it superficially resembles our orchard oriole the hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) is an Old World oriole that lives on the islands of New Guinea. Its skin and feathers are poisonous to touch though not as deadly as the golden poison frog of South America shown below.  Both animals exude batrachotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin that kills by paralysis and cardiac arrest.  The frog is 50 times more poisonous than the bird.  He contains enough poison to kill 10 men!

Golden poison frog, Columbia (photo from Wikimdeia Commons)
Golden poison frog, Columbia (photo from Wikimdeia Commons)

These animals are poisonous because they eat poisonous insects and yet they don't die!

Fascinated?

I learned this and more at The Power of Poison exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Power of Poison in the Natural World (exhibit banner from Carnegie Museum of Natural History)
Power of Poison in the Natural World (exhibit banner from Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

The exhibit explores our relationships with poison in nature including how we avoid it, work around it, use it to kill or use it to cure.  Throughout it all we are fascinated by its power.  Here are a few of the cool things you'll see:

  • A terrarium with live golden poison frogs!  (Find out why these particular frogs are harmless.)
  • Foods we eat that are/were partly poisonous. How about cashews?
  • The real poisons behind famous literary scenes in Macbeth's witches' brew, Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.
  • What killed the Borgias' enemies? Cleopatra? Ponce de Leon?
  • Poisons that cure cancer and treat high blood pressure.

In the end you'll get to test your skills with solve-it-yourself poison mysteries.

Visit the Carnegie Museum's The Power of Poison exhibit, now through September 4, and find out what's surprisingly poisonous.

Make plans for your visit here.

 

p.s. By the way, poisons in nature aren't that unusual.  We have poisonous blister beetles, jimsonweed and poison ivy in Pennsylvania, just to name a few.

(photo credits: bird and frog photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.
'Poisons in Nature' banner from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History
)

Big And Little

Door to the Big Bone Room (photo by Kate St. John)
Door to the Big Bone Room (photo by Kate St. John)

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is famous for its dinosaurs. They have many skeletons on display but where do they keep the ones that aren't?

In the Carnegie's basement hallway these doors are across the hall from each other:  the Big Bone Room and the Little Bone Room.

Door to the Little Bone Room (photo by Kate St. John)
Door to the Little Bone Room (photo by Kate St. John)

Do they keep the big bones in one room and the little bones in the other?

Is a dinosaur's thigh in the Big room and his toe in the Little one?

I haven't seen either room but my friends at the Carnegie assure me that "Big" and "Little" refer to the size of the rooms, not the size of the bones inside them.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Museum Full Of Wonders

Collection Manager Steve Rogers shows the the Wandering Albatross at Carnegie Museum (photo by Donna Foyle)
Collection Manager Steve Rogers displays wandering albatrosses in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Carnegie Museum is full of wonders.

Last Saturday about 50 of us went behind the scenes in the Section of Birds where we learned that...

  • The albatross cabinet smells fishy because the albatrosses' bodies smell like fish.  Collection Manager Steve Rogers shows us the wandering albatross above.
  • A brown-headed cowbird's egg is really much larger than a red-eyed vireo's.  Here's a clutch of vireo eggs parasitized by a cowbird.

Red-eyed vireo clutch with brown-headed cowbird egg in the Carnegie Museum collection (photo by Doug Cunzolo)
Red-eyed vireo clutch with brown-headed cowbird egg in the Carnegie Museum collection (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

  • Females in the genus Cotinga, native to Central and South America, look very different from their mates.  Below, female spangled cotingas are dull brown while the males are iridescent turquoise with purple throats.

Spangled cotingas in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)
Spangled cotingas in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

 

  • The spotted sandpiper lays eggs that are larger than her head!  Here I'm looking at her egg through a magnifying glass. Oh my! How does she do it?

Kate St. John examines the spotted sandpiper egg (photo by Donna Foyle)
Kate St. John examines the spotted sandpiper egg (photo by Donna Foyle)

Her sex life is even stranger than her large egg shown below. Pat McShea explained that spotted sandpipers are polyandrous.  The female lays a clutch of four eggs but hardly incubates them if other males are available.  Instead her mate handles incubation as she leaves him for another male, mates with him and lays another clutch of four. She can do this up to three times in one season!  Her job is to lay those enormous eggs.

Spotted sandpiper and egg in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)
Spotted sandpiper and egg in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Thank you to Steve Rogers, Pat McShea and all the folks at Carnegie Museum who showed us the Collection's wonderful birds.

This is the last article in my Carnegie Museum series but it's not the last of the museum.  You can visit Carnegie Museum of Natural History any time, except on Tuesdays when they're closed.  Make plans for your visit here.

 

(photos by Donna Foyle and Doug Cunzolo)

Ornate From Head To Toe

Ornate hawk-eagle legs, Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)
Legs of the ornate hawk-eagle, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Museums inspire me.

The first time I saw the ornate hawk-eagle specimen at Carnegie Museum I didn't even know the bird existed.  Its beauty impressed me (ornate legs shown above) and that was before I learned what he can do with his head feathers!  (photo below from Wikimedia Commons)

I hoped to see this bird in the wild some day, but I never expected it would happen.

Ornate hawk-eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Ornate hawk-eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ornate hawk-eagles (Spizaetus ornatus) live in the rainforest from southeastern Mexico to Colombia but are rarely seen.  Their numbers are declining because of deforestation, so it was quite a thrill when our Road Scholar birding group saw one at San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica on 4 February 2017.  We learned afterward that none had been seen in the area since a flyover two years before and prior to that 10 years.  We were very lucky.

This video tribute to Dr. Alexander Skutch displays the beauty of these majestic birds as they nest in Costa Rica.  The video text is in Spanish. Thank you to our guide, Roger Melendez, for assisting with the English translation below.

Notes:

Ornate hawk-eagle voices are similar to those of bald eagles and ospreys.  The chick in the video, like other raptor fledglings, begs with the familiar open-wing-whining stance.

Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary is a 192 acre reserve in Costa Rica that once served as the home and outdoor laboratory of the late Dr. Alexander Skutch.

Translation of Spanish text in the video:

  • "Rapaces ..."   Raptors Foundation of Costa Rica: For Knowledge and Conservation of Birds of Prey
  • "Así ..."   So, when the coffin [of Dr. Skutch] approached Los Cusingos, on the branch of a tree at the side of the road was a most beautiful hawk [an ornate hawk-eagle] with outstretched wings.
  • "Ave muy ..."  [This] bird is very difficult to see in this area, for which Dr. Alexander felt a particular affection.  -- Luko Hilge, 2004, regarding the death of Alexander F. Skutch ("Farewell of birds"), from Alexander Skutch, The Last Great Naturalist?
  • "Dia" means Day.   Day 0, Day 30, Day 60 ... since the egg was laid.
  • "Compartimos ... "  We share with you a fragment of the life of the ornate hawk-eagle, from its incubation to its first adventures around the nest, always with the hope of passing on to the viewer that "spark" of appreciation and conservation of our wonderful birds of prey.
  • Raptors Foundation of Costa Rica.
    • Video and Editing -- Chris Jiménez
    • Collaboration -- Pablo Comacho

 

(video by Chris Jiménez on YouTube)

Behind The Scenes at Carnegie Museum, Feb 18

Ivory-billed Woodpecker specimen, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo by Kate St.John)
Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Section of Birds, held by Collection Manager Steve Rogers, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

Let's go birding indoors!

Come to Carnegie Museum’s Section of Birds on Saturday, February 18 for a behind the scenes tour led by Collection Manager Stephen Rogers and other bird specialists (including myself).

Stephen manages both the Birds and Amphibians & Reptiles collections at the Carnegie, both ranked in the top ten collections in the North America. The Bird collection contains almost 190,000 specimens, most of which are preserved as study skins, but also includes skeletons, eggs, fluid specimens, mounts and other preparations. Steve is also a skilled scientific preparator and taxidermist who has prepared roughly 15,000 birds for the collection.

When:  Saturday February 18.  Walk-ins welcome 10:30am to 12:30pm at the Section of Birds office.

Where:  Carnegie Museum of Natural History
4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
*** Come to the Section of Birds Office, midway along Bird Hallway on the 3rd floor. ***

Who:  Anyone can walk in.  (Please leave a comment below if you plan to attend so we can get a crowd estimate.)

Cost:  There is no extra fee for this tour but there is an admission fee for the museum.
Free to museum members. Non-member rates are: Adults $19.95,  Seniors (65+) $14.95,  Students with ID and children 3-18 $11.95.  Click here for details.

For directions and information about Carnegie Museum, see their website at www.carnegiemnh.org.

Hope to see you there!

 

p.s. The ivory-billed woodpecker pictured above is just one of the many specimens in the Section of Birds.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Not Always Blue

This beautiful bird is a male red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus) in breeding plumage in Costa Rica.  He's not the same subspecies as those found in Espírito Santo (ES), Brazil.  (Alas, the beautiful video filmed at that location was deleted by the user.)

In southeastern Brazil the red-legged honeycreepers are members of the subspecies holti.  Their "type specimen," the bird that defines them, is in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Back in 1940 when E. G. and M. L. Holt collected this bird in Espírito Santo, he wasn't considered a separate subspecies.  Then in 1977, Kenneth Parkes determined that he is indeed unique and named him Cyanerpes cyaneus holti.   Field guides for southeastern Brazil refer back to this exact specimen at Carnegie Museum, placed here on his page in the Handbook of the Birds of the World.

Type specimen of Cyanerpes cyaneus holti, placed on his page in Handbook of the Birds of the World (photo by Kate St. John)
Type specimen of Cyanerpes cyaneus holti, placed on his page in Handbook of the Birds of the World (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Red-legged honeycreepers are common in Costa Rica, too, (subspecies carneipes) so I was looking forward to seeing this stunning blue bird while I'm here. However, I'd read on the same page (above) in the Handbook of the Birds of the World that Costa Rican males molt from blue to green right after the breeding season:

"In Costa Rica, male acquires eclipse plumage mostly between about Jul and Oct, and for the last few months of year almost all adult males are in eclipse; males in some stage of greenish “transition” plumage present in every month except Mar–May, when breeding."

Oh no! Not always blue? What if they are all green like this?

Fortunately the males are very blue right now. Whew!

 

(video by Fabricio Vasconcelos Costa on YouTube. Type specimen photo by Kate St. John)

Day 5: Esquinas Rainforest Reserve

A Good Long Look

Red-breasted merganser specimen, Carnegie Museum Bird Hall (photo by Kate St.John)
Red-breasted merganser specimen, Carnegie Museum Bird Hall (photo by Kate St.John)

Birds are often hard to see in the field and we usually miss the details.  In museums we can take a good long look.  Here are three examples.

Did you know that mergansers have "toothed" bills?  The projections aren't really teeth. They're the plates or lamellae that all ducks have, but modified for catching and holding fish.  You can see the "teeth" on the red-breasted merganser, above, at Bird Hall in Carnegie Museum.  Another cool thing:  You can see through the merganser's nostrils.

American coots swim so much that we rarely see their feet.  This specimen shows they have unusually long toes that perform like snowshoes when coots walk on floating vegetation.

The American coot has long toes for walking on floating vegetation -- like snowshoes (photo by Kate St. John)
The American coot has long toes for walking on floating vegetation (photo by Kate St. John)

A closer look reveals two more features.  Coots feet aren't webbed for swimming.  Instead they have lobed toes.  And how about those claws!

Close up of feet on an American coot, Bird Hall Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)
Close up of feet on an American coot, Bird Hall Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Western grebes have lobed toes, too ...

Western grebe specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)
Western grebe specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

... and necks structurally similar to herons and anhingas.  With needle-like bills they could stab fish if they wanted to.

Western grebe's sharp bill, Carnegie Musuem specimen (photo by Kate St. John)
Western grebe's sharp bill, Carnegie Musuem specimen (photo by Kate St. John)

Experts can tell the sex of this bird by the size of its bill.  Female western grebes have shorter, thinner bills.  Do you think this one is male?

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

The Case of Extinct Birds

Passenger pigeon, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)
Passenger Pigeon taxidermy mount, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Because Earth's current extinction rate is 1,000 times the normal background rate, scientists believe we’re at the start of the sixth mass extinction.

What does extinction look like?   I visited a large display case at Carnegie Museum's Bird Hall to find out.

In the case of extinct birds, each species has a story. The reason for extinction is often well known but the exact date of disappearance is usually obscure, though there are exceptions.

Take, for instance, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) shown above.  Native to eastern North America, we would have seen passenger pigeons in Pennsylvania if we'd lived 200 years ago but relentless uncontrolled hunting wiped out their population until it crashed.  The last passenger pigeon died in captivity on 1 September 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.  Extinction was caused by humans because we liked to eat them.

 

Guadalupe Storm-Petrel, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)
Guadalupe Storm-Petrel specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

The Guadalupe storm-petrel (Oceanodroma macrodactyla) disappeared more quietly. Always hard to distinguish from its close relative, Leach's storm-petrel, this bird nested only on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Mexico's Baja California. Cats were introduced there in the late 19th century and by 1912 no storm-petrels could be found. According to Wikipedia, "Only old, abandoned burrows and the decayed remains of storm petrels killed by cats were found in the years thereafter."  Extinction was caused by cats introduced by humans.

 

Laysan Crake specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)
Laysan Crake (Laysan rail) specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

The Laysan crake or Laysan rail (Porzana palmeri) couldn't fly but that didn't matter because he lived on the remote island of Laysan. Unfortunately his population crashed due to habitat loss when humans introduced rabbits to his island home. The final blow came in 1944 when rats jumped ship onto Laysan.  Extinction was forced by two human-introduced species: rabbits and rats.

There are many stories in the case of extinct birds.  Learn why they disappeared at Carnegie Museum's Bird Hall.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

How Museums Saved The Peregrine Falcon

Two specimens, Peregrine Falcon egg clutches, anatum subspecies, Carnegie Museum (photo by Steve Rogers)
Two specimens of peregrine falcon egg clutches at Carnegie Museum, collected at Baja California in 1921 (photo by Steve Rogers)

What good is a museum collection of bird eggs?  In the case of peregrine falcons, egg collections helped save the species.

After World War II new organochlorine insecticides were introduced on the open market and widely used in agriculture. Some of them, such as seed dressings of dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor, instantly killed birds as they fed in the fields.  DDT was more insidious.

By the mid 1960s, seed dressings were already banned in Britain but the peregrine population was still crashing and Derek Ratcliffe wondered if something else was going on.  Since 1951 he and other peregrine monitors had seen many broken eggs in eyries and frequent nest failure.  Ratcliffe wondered if peregrine eggs were collapsing because the eggshells were thin.  He decided to find out.

Egg collections are empty shells (notice the tiny drill hole in each specimen above).  You must not break them to measure the shell's thickness.  However the weight of the shell correlates to thickness if you account for the size of the egg.  Ratcliffe weighed each egg and measured its length and width.  Then he used this formula to determine its thickness index.

Shell thickness index = Weight of eggshell (mg) / [Length (mm) * Breadth (mm)]

For his preliminary study, Ratcliffe measured egg specimens in the British Museum of Natural History and 30 eggs collected in more recent peregrine surveys.  Indeed the shells had thinned since World War II, prompting further research.

Ratcliffe's final study, published in 1967, showed that the turning point in Britain was in 1947.  Prior to that shell thickness averaged a steady 1.82 for over 125 years.  After 1947 the thickness dropped to 1.53, an average loss of 16%.  (Later studies showed trace amounts of DDE in the shells.)

Meanwhile, Hickey and Anderson at the University of Wisconsin wondered if eggshells were thinning in North America, too.  Their 1968 study measured eggshells of 13 raptors and 9 fish-eating birds and found that, yes, peregrine falcons were affected by DDT in the U.S.

Peregrine populations were crashing on two continents because of overwhelming nest failure in the face of DDT.  Political and legislative wheels turned slowly.  DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Then the peregrine falcon recovery began.  By 1999 peregrines were doing so well in the western U.S. that they were taken off the U.S. Endangered Species List.

Museum egg collections played a key role in this happy result.  It's not a stretch to say that museums helped save the peregrine falcon.

 

(photo by Steve Rogers from the Section of Birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

Pennsylvania’s Native Parrot

Carolina parakeet specimen tag #2513, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)
Carolina parakeet specimen tag #2513, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Two hundred years ago wild parrots lived in Pennsylvania.  Now you find them only in museums.  This one is at the Carnegie.

Carolina parakeets (Conuropsis carolinensis) were gregarious birds who lived in heavily forested areas along rivers and swamps from New York to Florida and west to the Mississippi.  In flocks of 100 to 1,000 birds they nested in hollow trees and ate fruit and seeds, especially the seeds of cockleburs (Xanthium sp.).

As European settlers fanned out across North America we cut down the trees and planted orchards.  Habitat loss and hunting as orchard "pests" put pressure on Carolina parakeets.  John James Audubon noticed the bird's decline as early as 1832.

By 1878 Carolina parakeets lived only in central Florida but they seemed to be doing well there.  This specimen from Carnegie Museum was collected in 1896 in Osceola County, south of Orlando, Florida.

Carolina parakeet specimen #2513, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)
Carolina parakeet specimen #2513, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Unfortunately, wild Carolina parakeets disappeared suddenly in the early 1900s.  The last captive bird died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.  Conuropsis carolinensis was declared extinct in 1939.

 

What was it like to live near wild parrots?  Museums mounts give us a hint at their beauty ...

Carolina parakeet mounted specimen, Museum Wiesbaden, Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Carolina parakeet mounted specimens, Museum Wiesbaden, Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

... but for a real taste of the wild flocks go see their nearest relatives, black-hooded parakeets (Aratinga nenday), in Florida and California.  I've seen them at Boynton Beach, Florida as described in this vintage article: What We Never Knew

 

(specimen photos by Kate St. John. photo of taxidermy mount at Museum Wiesbaden, Germany from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)