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.
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 …
… 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)
On a visit to Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum I saw this bird with an unusual crown that opens sideways!
Bird crests typically open front to back so that they’re aerodynamic. Cardinals, blue jays and tufted titmice can fly with their crests up. This bird would have a problem.
The label on the pedestal says Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus), native from southern Mexico to southeastern Brazil. Why does she have a sideways crest? And what is it used for?
Back home on the Internet, I found out that royal flycatchers rarely raise their crowns. They use them in perched displays with their mates and in agonistic encounters with other birds but normally keep them flattened. The birds usually look like this. Pretty boring except for the tail.
Cameron encountered this flycatcher while banding birds in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil. As he held the bird, it opened its crest and beak and silently rotated its head back and forth 180 degrees in a mesmerizing display. See Cameron’s video below.
I would never have learned this if I hadn’t been curious about the royal flycatcher at Carnegie Museum.
The bird that wears a royal crown.
Male royal flycatcher with red crest raised, still photo and video by Cameron Rutt linked from Nemesis Bird and Flickr.
Female taxidermy mount at Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum, photo by Kate St.John.
Boring royal flycatcher not showing its crest, from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)
The cool thing about science is that it’s open to revision. If new data shows a different solution and the solution stands up under repeated, intensive review, then science changes its stance.
Museums are great places to see this kind of scientific progress in three dimensions.
The Blue Goose diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is good example. When the diorama was created in 1925, the blue goose was considered a separate species from the snow goose. The diorama was devoted to the unique “blue” species.
But the blue goose isn’t a separate species at all. By 1961 genetic tests had shown that the blue goose is a dark color morph of the snow goose. According to Birds of North America Online, the color is “controlled by a single locus, the blue allele being incompletely dominant to the white.” Although the blue color is somewhat dominant, snow geese tend to pick mates the same color as their parents so their white color persists.
The plaque next to the diorama explains how we’ve learned new things over time.
So when you hear a scientist making statements that include words like “may indicate” or “likely,” consider this. Scientists aren’t being vague. They’re speaking carefully from data that’s currently available. When they get even stronger evidence they’ll let you know. Statements like this are truthful: “Scientific studies indicate that extreme weather events such as heat waves and large storms are likely to become more frequent or more intense with human-induced climate change.” It only sounds vague to our society hungry for absolutes.
Meanwhile, we do know this is true: Blue geese are a color morph, not a separate species.
Looking for birds in the winter can be cold and disappointing so here’s a warm and rewarding outing for early January.
Let’s go on a scavenger hunt at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History on Sunday, 8 January 2017, 1:00pm to 3:00pm. We’ll meet in the big hallway(*) between the Art and Natural History Museums.
There are plenty of birds to see. From Bird Hall to dioramas and dinosaurs, birds are present in many of the displays. I’ll give you an introduction to the floor plan. Then we’ll spend an hour or more identifying everything with feathers on the second floor. This is an especially good area for a scavenger hunt because the birds aren’t always labeled in the displays.
Pictured here are two examples from the first floor dioramas. Above, a great horned owl is about to capture a skunk. Below, a common eider stands near her nest, made from her breast feathers.
After the scavenger hunt we can stay as long as we like. I’ll show you some cool things at Bird Hall and some “hidden” birds on the first and third floors.
Bird collections are like libraries. Instead of books on shelves, they have study skins in drawers.
These two drawers at Carnegie Museum contain study skins of the scarlet tanagers collected in western Pennsylvania from 1879 to 1995. The drawers are partly obscured but together they hold approximately 100 Piranga olivacea study skins collected during a period of almost 120 years. The average speed of collecting was very slow: less than 1 bird per year in a 16,000 square mile area.
Study skins are all prepared the same way. The dead bird is skinned, the body and skeleton removed leaving the skin, feathers, beak and lower legs. It’s then stuffed with cotton and sewn up. When completed the skin is positioned on its back with wings folded and beak extended so that it fits in a drawer.
Study skins play a key role in the definition of bird species. To determine a new taxon ornithologists examine many skins. Then for each taxon one study skin on earth is chosen as the holotype for that bird, the single physical example used to describe the genus-species-subspecies.
The white collection tag lists the specimen number, when, where, and who collected it: Number 36953, collected 21 Feb 1911 at Anzoategui, Venezuela by M.A. Carriker, Jr.
The blue holotype tag includes its scientific name, who described it, and where and when its description was published: W. E. Clyde Todd, Annals of Carnegie Museum, vol VIII, 1912, page 204. Only holotypes have the blue tag.
Because holotypes are physical examples, they can be re-examined as we learn new scientific techniques. In 1912 this bird’s scientific name was Compsothlypis pitiayumi elegans or Parula pitiayumi elegans. Since then ornithologists have learned about DNA and placed him in the Setophaga genus with the other warblers. Today his scientific name is Setophaga pitiayumi elegans.
Steve Rogers manages the herpetology and bird collections at the Carnegie and showed me how museums share their data via the iDigBio.org portal. Researchers can look up a species of interest on the website and find every study skin on earth including tag data and museum location. Here’s what the initial search result looks like for the species pitiayumi
Steve receives several requests a day from scientists around the world who need more data or want to visit the Carnegie’s collection.
We think of museums as places where the public views samples of the natural world, but in every museum there are far more specimens in storage than on display. At The Carnegie that ratio for birds is about 200 to 1. And so we wonder …
What good is a collection? and Why are there so many specimens?
In the late 1800s to mid 1900s museums collected birds for taxonomic research: What species exist? What are their characteristics? and What species are they related to? Collections still provide taxonomic answers:
Field guide and bird artists use behind-the-scenes specimens to produce accurate work.
Historic distribution of species is derived from the specimens’ geographic locations and dates.
We didn’t know about DNA when most of the birds were collected, but we now compare specimens’ DNA to each other and current birds.
We document regional variation in the same species (for instance, fox sparrows) by studying large collections made throughout its wide range. That’s why it’s good to have so many specimens.
When the Carnegie Museum of Natural History opened in 1895 it was a new institution with a very sparse collection. Today it houses nearly 200,000 bird specimens, most of which were acquired during a brief window of time. I think of it as the Golden Age of Collecting.
Bird collecting reached its peak from the 1880s to the 1930s for many U.S. museums. Scientific research was at the heart of the process and taxidermy was its tool. The driving reason behind collecting was to document and identify every bird species and determine its place in the taxonomic order. No one knew how many species there were nor where they lived.
Museums could afford to do this because they had money to hire scientists and pay for expeditions and specimens. W. E. Clyde Todd, whose career at the Carnegie spanned 1898 to 1945, oversaw bird acquisition during its heyday.
Bird collectors were both scientists and hardy wilderness explorers whose expeditions sometimes spanned several years. They walked into the wild with all their gear, set up camps, ate what they could find and worked with the local people. Their collecting was done by shotgun. They skinned the birds, preserved the skins, and stuffed them with cotton while recording the date, location, species and name of the collector.
M. A. “Meb” Carriker, Jr. (1879-1965), pictured above in the field with his son, studied bird lice and collected birds in Central and South America. He sent more than 25,000 specimens to the Carnegie. For each bird, his finished product was a study skin. Below, Assistant Curator Ruth Trimble holds the study skin of a magpie (probably not one of Carriker’s birds).
At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History bird acquisition reached its high point in 1917 with 9,375 specimens. Collecting dropped off worldwide during World War II and never reached those heights again. This occurred in part because the taxon-oriented purpose declined and our culture changed. By the end of the 20th century nearly all the bird species had been found and, since scientists don’t collect (kill) rare birds, the new finds weren’t collected. At the same time, technology provided new tools, taxidermy fell out of favor, and money for collecting dried up.
Today 1/3 of the Carnegie’s bird collection is more than 100 years old, 3/4 is older than 70. The Golden Age of Collecting ended before most of us were born.
* Meb and Mel Carriker collecting birds in the Beni River region of Bolivia, South America, 1934-1935, photo linked from Smithsonian archives blog A Tale of Coffee and Collecting
* W. E. Clyde Todd, Curator of Ornithology from 1914-1945, photo courtesy Carnegie Museum of Natural History
* Ruth Trimble, Assistant Curator of Birds 1934-1940, displays a magpie study skin, photo courtesy Carnegie Museum of Natural History)
If you’ve been reading my blog for a couple of years you know that I usually embark on a weekly series in the winter to pull us through the chilly days from November to February. This year is no exception.
Winter is a slow time outdoors so we’ll go indoors on Tuesdays to a place that houses almost 200,000 birds, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH).
Andrew Carnegie founded the museum in 1895. It quickly became famous when their expedition to Utah unearthed a nearly complete skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii in 1899. Today the museum has an excellent collection of birds, herps*, invertebrates, mammals, minerals and mollusks as well as the famous vertebrate paleontology department.
The Carnegie’s bird collection contains more than 198,000 specimens. There are 154,000 study skins behind the scenes and a thousand taxidermy mounts on display in cases, in dioramas, and in educational kits. One third of the specimens are over 100 years old.
You might not think of “watching” birds in a museum but there’s plenty to explore. In the weeks ahead I’ll touch on:
The Golden Age of Collecting.
What good is a museum collection?
What are study skins?
Pennsylvania birds we’ll never see anywhere else.
Looking for birds in the dioramas.
Birds behind the scenes.
I’ll also hold three indoor outings this winter:
Sunday, 8 January 2017: Scavenger hunt at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Find birds in the exhibits. (You can also visit on your own and report what you find on 8 Jan.)
Sunday, 22 January 2017: National Aviary: Close bird encounters with Outside My Window and Falconuts fans. (space will be limited)
To be announced, mid-to-late February: Behind the scenes at the Carnegie: A guided tour of birds the public rarely sees. (space will be limited)
So while Dippy wears his winter scarf, we’ll learn about his cohorts on Tuesdays.