Museum Birding: From the Specimen Drawer to the Field
Thursday, August 13
How do we birders know the things we think we know? Where do “field marks” come from? And what on earth do all those dead birds on their backs have to do with our hobby as we practice it in the 21st century?
Join me on August 13 for a two-hour workshop exploring the intimate connections between museum specimens and conservation, research, and even recreational birding. We will discover how collections are formed and maintained, and learn about the sometimes surprising results when old specimens are brought to bear on new problems.
After an introduction to the enduring value of natural history collections, we will discuss a number of the Southwest’s rarest and most challenging birds, illustrated with representative specimens from among the more than 18,000 held by the University of Arizona.
Along with stories of collecting adventure, daring, and even foolishness, we will all come away with new knowledge we can use in the field—and a new respect for the sources of that knowledge, sources lying quietly on their backs in wooden drawers.
Come have dinner with me and hear my keynote lecture on August 14. It’s all about owls, and I promise that there is NOT ONE SINGLE who/whoo pun in the whole thing.
Let’s hope not.
Natural history collecting and collections are under attack. Funding cuts, scientific fashion, and the ignorant and misguided activism of the ducky-and-bunny crowd have left too many museums in a sorry state indeed, unable to carry out even the most basic of their curatorial duties.
particularly critical in today’s era of rapid ecological and climate change, providing a unique and vitally important glimpse into ecological conditions of the past.
Unfortunately, that essay depends entirely on the hackneyed metaphor of the museum as a “library of life”:
In the same way that students of the humanities use new critical approaches to pull novel ideas out of old books, scientists regularly use new technologies — like stable isotope analysis, high-throughput DNA sequencing and X-ray computed tomography — to draw new discoveries from sometimes centuries-old specimens.
The image is not only tired, it’s naive. It’s misleading.
Think it through. If the museum is a library, then the museum specimen is a book — Lujan and Page tell us so expressly. But, again, think it through. No one wants, or no one should want, to subject natural history collections and the objects they contain to the same pressures under which today’s libraries labor.
Increasingly, economic and cultural forces have obliged even the greatest of libraries to treat the book as a fungible object, each copy of a text like any other. Already have a copy? You don’t need another. Available by interlibrary loan? You don’t need one at all. Digitized? Annex! Remote storage! RECAP! Library sale! Dumpster!
But books are not infinitely substitutable one for the other, as even the most superficially trained literary historian, critic, or historian of the book could tell you. Every edition, every printing, every copy might potentially reveal something different, something unexpected, something important.
If that is true of a library book, how much truer it is of the museum specimen. But if we admit, even assert, that museums are libraries, and specimens books, then we expose natural history collections and those who want to care for them to the same specious, and too often successful, arguments that have begun to lay waste to America’s libraries.
What good is having two Goliath bird-eating butterflies?
Why would you even need one if there’s a whole drawer of them in New York?
Why waste space on a bunch of old greasy skins when there are thousands, tens of thousands of photographs, videos, sound recordings, and 3D scans out there for the taking?
Most scientists and the thoughtful could answer these questions and cogently refute the assumptions behind them. But it isn’t usually scientists or the thoughtful making the decision. Keep on comparing natural history collections to libraries, and sooner or later — sooner, in fact — legislators, taxpayers, and university regents will make you live the metaphor.
And nobody should want that, least of all the researchers who use and need the specimens so gravely at risk.
Fifty-five minutes in to my twenty-minute drive, I remembered why I don’t bird Liberty State Park that often.
Ten minutes in to my two-hour walk, I remembered why I should.
There weren’t all that many birds, and any rarities that might have been hanging around managed to avoid detection, but even on a cold, dank, breezy morning, I always found something to look at, from harbor seals out in the water to American tree and song sparrows taking advantage of the snow plow’s imprecisions.
I should be seeing plenty more tree sparrows in Nebraska in a couple of weeks, but here in New Jersey, they will disappear with the snow cover — a fact that creates more than a bit of psychic tension in birders, like me, who wouldn’t half mind seeing the ground again sometime soon.
There was a nice little flock of 35 horned larks in the parking lot when I arrived. They stayed just long enough to confirm that they were alone; I’d expected snow buntings, and hoped for longspurs or pipits.
I didn’t walk far enough to see if the usual wintering gang of ruddy ducks was in residence. On glimpsing a distant flock of scaup, though, I did venture out onto the open fields for a closer look. The great hope is always that an Aythya flock contain at least three species, and this one did. Not, unfortunately, the tufted duck I’d been crossing my freezing fingers for, but a drake redhead, a nice enough find by local standards.
I’ve had a good winter for redheads here in New Jersey; I think today was the third day this calendar year I’d seen the species in the state– not quite like “the old days” of the 1980s, when you could almost count on finding redheads on the North Shore ponds. I often wonder, when I do run across these handsome ducks nowadays, whether the decline of winterers here in New Jersey is perhaps connected with the end of the New York introduction program, begun, if rightly I remember, in the 1950s and continuing into the 1980s.
After a couple of hours outside, the cold got to me; but I justified my early departure by the chance of running into even worse traffic on the way home. I didn’t. So maybe I’ll forget what a bear that drive can be, and try Liberty again one of these days.
Apparently Harper Lee is about to publish a second novel.
It seems a good time to ask a simple question: Why is it a sin to kill a mockingbird?
Lee’s novel offers its own, internal justifications for the rule, but is it possible that there is some sort of tradition standing behind Atticus Finch’s injunction?
T. Gilbert Pearson, the famous Audubonian and conservationist, was 13 when he bought his first gun in 1886. This is what an aged Floridian he knew as Aunt Celie told him:
Honey, when you gits big enough to tote a gun don’t never kill nary a mockin’ bird. Every one of them little fowls takes kyer of some good man or woman what’s daid, and when you hear one asingin’ at night you knows dat some good soul done come back and is walkin’ about. A sperit kaint never leave its grave lessen its mockin’ bird hollers for it to come out.
I’d say that this story adds more than a bit of weight and depth to the novel’s title, wouldn’t you? High school sophomores, take note!