Bird collections

Bird collections are curated repositories of scientific specimens consisting of birds and their parts. They are a research resource for ornithology, the science of birds, and for other scientific disciplines in which information about birds is useful. These collections are archives of avian diversity and serve the diverse needs of scientific researchers, artists, and educators. Collections may include a variety of preparation types emphasizing preservation of feathers, skeletons, soft tissues, or (increasingly) some combination thereof. Modern collections range in size from small teaching collections, such as one might find at a nature reserve visitor center or small college, to large research collections of the world's major natural history museums, the largest of which contain hundreds of thousands of specimens. Bird collections function much like libraries, with specimens arranged in drawers and cabinets in taxonomic order, curated by scientists who oversee the maintenance, use, and growth of collections and make them available for study through visits or loans.

Godwit prep
Marbled godwit, Limosa fedoa, prepared as a skin (shmoo), skeleton, and spread wing

History of bird collections


Red-footed Falcon.jpeg
Early collection used lifelike mounts like this red-footed falcon.

The roots of modern bird collections are found in the 18th- and 19th-century explorations of Europeans intent on documenting global plant and animal diversity.[1] It was a fashion to collect and display natural curiosities in Victorian England. Some wealthy cabinet naturalists were able to amass large collections using networks of field collectors. These early collections were not intended for scientific study and the collectors gave importance to aesthetics rather than scientific value.[2] It grew into a more scientific pursuit much later.[3]


Early scientific bird collections included those belonging to Pallas and Naumann in Germany, Latham and Tunstall in England and Adanson in France. Collections grew in size with increasing maritime activity, exploration and colonialism. For example, Charles Darwin collected over 400 bird specimens during his travels on the Beagle, and it was many years after his return to England that his bird collections from the Galapagos inspired (in part) his theory of evolution through natural selection. The Paris museum had 463 bird specimens in 1793 and this grew to 3411 in 1809; The Berlin museum had 2000 specimens in 1813 growing to 13,760 around 1850. In 1753 there were 1172 bird specimens in the museum established by Sir Hans Sloane but these appear to have perished before they moved to the British Museum. Early specimens from Captain Cook's voyages as well as those described by Latham in his General Synopsis of Birds (1781–1785) were also lost possibly due to poor preservation technique.[4] The scale of collections grew to the point where they needed more space and full-time curators.[2] In the earliest days of ornithology, collecting was the dominant method of bird observation and study. This approach has diminished with the growth of the discipline. The use of mist-netting and photography, blood sampling (for DNA, immunological and other studies), the development of optics and the use of other new techniques for studying birds have reduced the need to collect specimens for research,[5][6] yet collections continue to act as a vital shared resource for science (particularly taxonomy) and conservation. In an era of mass extinction, bird collections will evidence lost species.[7]

Collection and preservation techniques

Skinning a bird

Historically, bird specimens were collected mostly using firearms. Shotguns with "dust" shot were preferred to reduce damage to the specimens.[8] Today, specimens come from a variety of sources. Many (perhaps most) are salvaged from birds killed by window and communications tower strikes, domestic cats, by-catch from fisheries, die-offs from disease, vehicle strikes, and other accidental sources of mortality. However, the world's bird collections have been argued to be inadequate in documenting avian diversity, from taxonomic, geographic, and temporal perspectives, with some parts of tropical regions considered under-represented in particular museums.[9] Underrepresented taxa continue to be actively collected by ornithologists, generally using either firearms or mist-nets. Permitting agencies oversee these activities in most countries.

A partly skinned bird

Techniques to preserve birds were attempted even from the early 16th century as shown in the writings of Conrad Gesner and Pierre Belon. Belon provided instructions on the removal of viscera and the use of salt to preserve bird specimens in his 1555 book on birds. These were further improved in the 17th century and a range of preservatives included ash (potassium carbonate), salt, sulphur, alum, alcohol and various plant extracts were used.[10] In the early days of bird collections, most specimens were mounted in unrealistic positions often with their wings raised as if they were about to take flight. These were kept in the open and the colours were prone to fading and the specimens themselves prone to damage by beetles. In Berlin, J. L. Frisch started using tightly enclosed glass jars for every mount to prevent pest damage. During this time, Comte de Reaumur at the Paris Museum had managed to find techniques to preserve specimens dry and without loss of colour.[11][12] This technique was however a secret and similar results were later achieved by pickling using salt, ground pepper and alum and drying for a month with threads holding the bird in a natural position.[3] The use of arsenic to preserve specimens was first introduced by Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur (1718-1777) but this method was publicly revealed only in 1800 by Louis Dufresne in Daudin's Traité Élémentaire et Complet d’Ornithologie (1800).[13] In modern collections, salvaged or collected birds may be preserved in a number of ways. The most traditional preparation is a study skin, in which almost all of the body inside the skin is removed and replaced with cotton so that the final result resembles a bird lying on its back with its wings folded.[14] Borax is used as the preferred preservative as it is low in toxicity.[15] This stereotypic posture was developed to enable many skins to be kept together in cabinets to protect them from insect and light damage. If a complete skeleton is desired, a flat skin may be prepared: all bones, muscle, digestive and other soft tissue is carefully removed and the feathers and skin are stretched flat and dried.[16]

A prepared skin

A more recent preparation method pioneered by the Royal Ontario Museum removes all bones for a complete skeleton while also producing a round skin without bill or legs (called a ROM, though if one set of wing and leg bones remain with the skin the preparation is called a shmoo in North America).[14][17] Alternatively, the entire bird (or any soft parts associated with preparations described above) may be preserved in alcohol. For any of these methods, several supplemental preparations may be made. For example, a wing may be removed and preserved separately as a spread wing for better study of flight feathers; a tissue sample may be removed and frozen for molecular analyses; or a recording of the bird's song before collection may be archived. Neither molecular samples nor sound recordings require a bird to be collected (killed). Finally, if the bird is too rotten for the skin and feathers to be preserved, as is the case with some salvaged specimens, the skeleton alone may be preserved. Dried tissue is removed from skeletons by using dermestid beetle larvae (genus Dermestes). Whereas in the past arsenic was routinely added to skins to protect them from destruction by insects,[18] specimens prepared today are generally protected by an initial freezing period to kill insects and their eggs followed by keeping them in high-quality museum cases in a climate-controlled room. Each specimen has data associated with it, and the amount of data available is usually directly correlated with the specimen's scientific value. Most specimens are of little value for research without accompanying information, such as the time and place the bird was found or collected. This and other important information, such as mass, sex, fat deposition, and degree of skull ossification, is written on a label along with a unique field and museum number. Modern computerized museum databases include all of this information for each specimen, as well as the types of methods used to prepare the bird. Modern collections seek to maximize the utility of each preserved individual, and this includes recording detailed information about it. Most modern specimens also include a tissue sample preserved for genetic study. Online access to collections' data is becoming increasingly available, and a cross-institutional database covering millions of computerized bird records is in development.[19]

Uses of bird collections

Bird collections are used for a wide variety of purposes. All biological species including those of birds are represented by a holotype, the vast majority of which are full specimens (mostly skins) and in modern times explicitly designated in the original description of the taxon. All other putative members of the species may be compared to the holotype to confirm their identification. Rigorous studies of avian taxonomy are based on specimens from bird collections. Taxonomic studies rely on morphological and genetic characters to determine species limits and evolutionary relationships. Museum specimens have been the preferred source for scoring these characteristics, as they allow studies to be replicated – anyone may go back and repeat the study using the same specimens to verify the conclusions. However, it has alternatively been argued that such re-examination can be undertaken from archived photographs without killing the study piece.[20]

LSU Museum of Natural Science - Study skins of birds
Cabinet with study skins, Louisiana State University

In the case of molecular studies, the preservation of a specimen that can vouch for the source of the tissue sample used to gather genetic data has been recommended, as genetic analysis often yields surprising results that make reexamination of the original specimen crucial.[9][21][22]

Studies on ectoparasites, usually obtained during capture, but also obtained from old museum specimens, are valuable for studies on coevolution and zoonoses.[23][24]

In addition to taxonomic research, collections can provide information relevant to the study of variety of other ornithological questions, including comparative anatomy, ecology, behavior, disease, and conservation. Forensic ornithologists use collections to identify species involved in aircraft bird strikes, imported materials containing bird parts, and birds killed through various human activities, legal and illegal. In addition, collections are used by zooarchaeologists to identify bird bones at prehistoric human sites or species of origin for feathers used in human cultural artifacts.[25] Collections also have been heavily used by artists, particularly for the production of plates for ornithological field guides. The close-up observation and opportunity for manipulation provided by preserved study skins makes them, together with field observations and photography, to be an important basis for painters of field guide plates of birds.[26] Most bird species have several unique plumages that distinguish immature from adults, males from females, and breeders from non-breeders. Thus, many different specimens may be required to produce a thorough plate for identification of a given species. Accurate colour measurements using spectrometry are possible from specimens.[27] For seabirds, museum specimens are adequate proxies for feather colour but not for skin colour. [28]

Bird collections have been useful for retrospective studies. Bird collections offer the potential for current and future researchers to make in-depth morphological and molecular study of past avian diversity. One of the earliest and most famous examples of this was the use of egg collections from the 19th and early 20th centuries in determining that the pesticide DDT was producing eggshell-thinning in raptors.[29][30][31] The ornithologists who collected the eggs could never have known that their work would one day help establish causes for declines and help in making conservation strategies to save bird such as peregrine falcons from possible extinction.

As threats to bird populations grow and extinctions continue, historical specimens are valuable in documenting the impacts of human activities and causes of decline for threatened species.[32][33][34] Bird collections have also been used to gauge the flow of environmental pollutants over time. A study of soot deposits on specimens collected within the United States Manufacturing Belt was used to track concentrations of atmospheric black carbon over a 135-year span.[35] Other possible uses for bird specimens not known today may arise in the future.

Collection debates

Naturhistorisches Museum, Kakapo
Specimens of the endangered kakapo at the Vienna Museum of Natural History; thousands of kakapo were collected for museums across the world

The issue of whether birds should continue to be actively collected for research has been the subject of some debate among ornithologists (examples of this can be found in the lively exchanges between Remsen[36][37] and Bekoff & Elzanowski,[38] between Vuilleumier[39][40] and Donegan,[20] and between Dubois & Nemesio[41] and Donegan[42]). Those opposed to collecting believe that much of current collecting is unnecessary, arguably motivated by the personal field scores of individuals or by competition between museums, rather than the result of a strict scientific rationale; that collecting, in extreme cases of species on the verge of extinction, can pose a threat to bird populations; and that in many cases in which the necessity of specimens is claimed, new technology such as digital photography and blood sample analysis of mist-netted individuals could instead be used. Finally, at a time of rampant deforestation and species extinctions, scientists and conservationists should take the lead in providing an example to local people not to kill or hunt birds. Where other techniques not involving killing of a bird are feasible, to take a specimen is viewed by some as simply unethical.[20][38] Proponents of collecting counter-argue that compared to the many millions of birds killed each year by habitat destruction, domestic cats, window strikes, and tower kills,[43] scientists collect only a few thousand birds per year worldwide and populations will quickly recover from an episode of collecting as long as their habitat remains.[36][39] Supporters of continued collecting also point to the greater scientific utility and legacy of museum specimens compared to blood samples or photographs, and argue that collecting for research offers the only source of avian mortality with a positive outcome for birds in terms of the biological knowledge gained.[22] Although taking small blood samples from wild birds is often viewed as a harmless alternative to collecting, it reduces survival by as much as 33%[44] and does not provide the benefits of a voucher specimen.[22] Scientists have pointed out that bird populations represent renewable resources, and that scientific collecting represents only a tiny and non-additive proportion of annual bird mortality.[9][36][45] However, examples exist of species whose extinction was directly contributed to by museum collecting (e.g. Guadalupe caracara,[46] ivory-billed woodpecker[47]).


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External links

American Ornithological Society

The American Ornithological Society (AOS) is an ornithological organization based in the United States. The society was formed in October 2016 by the merger of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) and the Cooper Ornithological Society. Its members are primarily professional ornithologists although membership is open to anyone with an interest in birds. The AOS is a member of the Ornithological Council and Ornithological Societies of North America (OSNA). The society publishes the two scholarly journals The Auk and The Condor as well as the AOS Checklist of North American Birds.

In 2013, the American Ornithologists' Union announced a close partnership with the Cooper Ornithological Society, including joint meetings, a centralized publishing office, and a refocusing of their respective journals to increase efficiency of research. In October 2016 the AOU announced that it was ceasing to operate as an independent union; it was merging with the Cooper Ornithological Society to create the American Ornithological Society.

Black swan

The black swan (Cygnus atratus) is a large waterbird, a species of swan which breeds mainly in the southeast and southwest regions of Australia. Within Australia they are nomadic, with erratic migration patterns dependent upon climatic conditions. Black swans are large birds with mostly black plumage and red bills. They are monogamous breeders, and are unusual in that one-quarter of all pairings are homosexual, mostly between males. Both partners share incubation and cygnet rearing duties.

Black swans were introduced to various countries as an ornamental bird in the 1800s, but have escaped and formed stable populations. A small population of black swans exists on the River Thames at Marlow, on the Brook running through the small town of Dawlish in Devon (they have become the symbol of the town), near the River Itchen, Hampshire, and the River Tees near Stockton on Tees. Described scientifically by English naturalist John Latham in 1790, the black swan was formerly placed into a monotypic genus, Chenopis. Black swans can be found singly, or in loose companies numbering into the hundreds or even thousands. Black swans are popular birds in zoological gardens and bird collections, and escapees are sometimes seen outside their natural range.


The bluebirds are a group of medium-sized, mostly insectivorous or omnivorous birds in the order of Passerines in the genus Sialia of the thrush family (Turdidae). Bluebirds are one of the few thrush genera in the Americas. They have blue, or blue and rose beige, plumage. Female birds are less brightly colored than males, although color patterns are similar and there is no noticeable difference in size between the two sexes.

Eduard Daniël van Oort

Eduard Daniël van Oort (31 October 1876 in Barneveld, Gelderland – 21 September 1933 in Leiden) was a Dutch ornithologist.

Oort was in charge of the bird collections at the Rijksmuseum of Natural History in Leiden; in 1915 he was made Director of this museum, a position which he held until his death. He was the author of Ornithologia Neerlandica, de vogels van Nederland (1922-1935), with plates by Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek (1873-1944). These plates were later licensed by Harry Witherby for use in The Handbook of British Birds (1938-1941).

A species of Indonesian gecko, Lepidodactylus oortii, is named in his honor.

Hermann Johansen

Hermann Eduardovich Johansen (Герман Эдуардович Иоганзен) (1866–1930) was a Russian biologist and ornithologist. He graduated with a degree in zoology from Tartu University in 1889. He moved to Tomsk in 1893 and began teaching German, physics and natural history in the Alekseyev school. From 1899, he taught zoology and comparative anatomy at Tomsk State University. In 1918, he was appointed full professor in the chair of zoology. He held this chair until his death, and was succeeded by another Johansen, Hans Johansen, to whom he was not related.

Hermann Johansen undertook basic faunistic investigations of large areas of Siberia and was particularly an expert of bird biology. An appreciable part of his bird collections are kept at the Zoological Museum of the University of Copenhagen. They were brought there by his successor in the professor chair, Hans Johansen, when the latter was expelled from the Soviet Union by Stalin in 1937.

Of his two sons, the elder (Wolfgang Johansen) was killed as a Russian soldier in World War I, while the younger (Bodo Johansen) became a zoologist.

Humayun Abdulali

Humayun Abdulali (19 May 1914, Kobe, Japan - 3 June 2001, Mumbai, India) was an Indian ornithologist and biologist who was also a cousin of the "birdman of India", Salim Ali. Like other naturalists of his period, he took an initial interest in shikar (hunting). Unlike Sálim Ali, his main contributions were less field-oriented and based more on bird collections, particularly those at the Bombay Natural History Society where he worked for most of his life.

Jacques Perrin de Brichambaut

Jacques Perrin de Brichambaut (18 October 1920, Paris – 17 March 2007, Paris)

was a French ornithologist.

His bird collections are held by Muséum de Toulouse. The Jacques Perrin de Brichambaut egg collection includes all the Palearctic species (Europe, North Africa and Asia), that is to say approximately 1,000 species and nearly 15,000 eggs and is one of the most complete and best documented palearctic egg collections in Europe.

Knut Dahl

Knut Dahl (28 October 1871 – 11 June 1951) was a Norwegian zoologist and explorer who made important bird collections in northern Australia.

Leonard Cutler Sanford

Leonard Cutler Sanford (September 19, 1868 – December 7, 1950) was an American surgeon and amateur ornithologist who served as a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History for nearly thirty years and who was instrumental in building up its bird collections.

Olive-sided flycatcher

The olive-sided flycatcher (Contopus cooperi) is a passerine bird. It is a medium-sized tyrant flycatcher.

Richard Bowdler Sharpe

Richard Bowdler Sharpe (22 November 1847 – 25 December 1909) was an English zoologist and ornithologist who worked as curator of the bird collection at the British Museum of natural history. In the course of his career he published several monographs on bird groups and produced a multi-volume catalogue of the specimens in the collection of the museum. He described several new species of bird including Sharpe's longclaw (Hemimacronyx sharpei) and Sharpe's pied-babbler (Turdoides sharpei) which are named in his honour.

Shmoo (disambiguation)

Shmoo is a cartoon character created by Al Capp in the strip Li'l Abner.

Shmoo or Schmoo may refer to:

Shmoos, nickname of the Cosmic Ray Detection Units of CHICOS (California High School Cosmic Ray Observatory)

Shmoo plot, an electrical engineering graphical display of the response of a component or system

Shmoo Group, a security practitioners' group

Shmoo (yeast), projection from yeast in response to mating pheromones

Shmoo, a bird skin, typically as specimens for bird collections

Shmoo, any crusty or gooey residue, coating, or liquid lubricant. gunk


The Tadorninae is the shelduck-sheldgoose subfamily of the Anatidae, the biological family that includes the ducks and most duck-like waterfowl such as the geese and swans.

This group is largely tropical or Southern Hemisphere in distribution, with only two species, the common shelduck and the ruddy shelduck breeding in northern temperate regions, though the crested shelduck (presumed extinct) was also a northern species.

Most of these species have a distinctive plumage, but there is no pattern as to whether the sexes are alike, even within a single genus.

Talavera de la Reina pottery

Talavera de la Reina pottery is a craft made in Talavera de la Reina, Toledo (Spain). Dishes, jars and other objects have been found in recent archaeological excavations; some of the materials discovered date back to the Roman Empire.

Arabs brought to the city new techniques, including a new kind of oven for baking pottery. During that era, many of the pieces included abstract motifs as prescribed by Muslim religious restrictions. In the fifteenth century, Jan Floris brought new styles from Holland. He founded a factory which started the pottery tradition of the city.Ceramics of Talavera have been used to make fountains; examples exist in Cuba and Brazil. Tiles for buildings have been made; some are in New Orleans, Tokyo and Paris. Its presence in Royal Palaces and Museums all over the world testify to its quality.

There are different styles of Talavera de la Reina Pottery:



Bird collections

House collections

Religious collections

Hunting scenesWorkshops in the town keep up the tradition pottery, including Ruiz de Luna and Emilio Niveiro.


Taxidermy is the preserving of an animal's body via mounting (over an armature) or stuffing, for the purpose of display or study. Animals are often, but not always, portrayed in a lifelike state. The word taxidermy describes the process of preserving the animal, but the word is also used to describe the end product, which are called taxidermy mounts or referred to simply as "taxidermy".

The word taxidermy is derived from the Greek words taxis and derma. Taxis means "arrangement", and derma means "skin" (the dermis). The word taxidermy translates to "arrangement of skin".Taxidermy is practiced primarily on vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and less commonly on amphibians) but can also be done to larger insects and arachnids under some circumstances. Taxidermy takes on a number of forms and purposes including hunting trophies and natural history museum displays. Museums use taxidermy as a method to record species, including those that are extinct and threatened, in the form of study skins and life-size mounts. Taxidermy is sometimes also used as a means to memorialize pets.A person who practices taxidermy is called a taxidermist. They may practice professionally, catering to museums and sportsman (hunters and fishermen), or as amateurs (hobbyists). A taxidermist is aided by familiarity with anatomy, sculpture, painting, and tanning.

Thomas Bellerby Wilson

Thomas Bellerby Wilson (1807, Philadelphia – 1865) was an American naturalist.

Wilson was educated first at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, then in Darlington, England, and then at the University of Paris, France and Trinity College in Ireland. In 1828 he entered the University of Pennsylvania training as a physician.He lived in Philadelphia until 1833, then moved to New London Pennsylvania. In 1841 he moved to Newark, Delaware. He joined the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and was the Academy's principal benefactor and donor.His (26,000 specimens bird collections bird collection was housed in the enlarged for the purpose Academy building.

Wilson made many field trips in the USA to collect birds, reptiles, fish and insects, minerals, fossils and shells . He also purchased entire collections of specimens and libraries by mail and during his five trips to Europe. One such collection was that of François Victor Masséna (12,500 bird specimens).

Wilson was one of the founders of the American Entomological Society

Tyrophagus casei

Tyrophagus casei, the cheese mite, is a species of mite which is inoculated into Milbenkäse and Altenburger Ziegenkäse cheese during their production. It is 0.45–0.70 millimetres (0.018–0.028 in) long, and feeds on cheese, corn, flour, old honeycombs, bird collections, and smoked meats.The surface of cheese which has been colonised by mites may be covered with a fine, grey powder or bloom, due to the mites themselves and their moulted skin and faeces. These impart a distinctive "piquant" taste to various cheeses.

University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

The University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, founded in 1858, is a museum on the University of Iowa campus at Iowa City, Iowa. The museum is known for its extensive collection of birds, mammals, and Native American artifacts. Major research collections include the Kallam Collection of prehistoric stone tools, the Talbot and Jones Bird Collections, the Frank Russell Collection of Inuit and Native Arctic artifacts, and a large collection from the Philippines from the 1904 World's Fair.

The museum houses several galleries and exhibits. Iowa Hall covers 500 million years of Iowa's geological, cultural, and ecological history. Mammal Hall exhibits the adaptation and diversity of nearly every mammalian order, from the aardvark to the zebra. The Hageboeck Hall of Birds displays more than 1,000 specimens, including the historic Laysan Island Cyclorama. The Diversity of Life exhibits describe major plant and animal groups, and the art of taxidermy. The newest gallery, the Biosphere Discovery Hub, investigates the complex relationships between culture and the environment.

Zoological specimen

A zoological specimen is an animal or part of an animal preserved for scientific use.

Various uses are: to verify the identity of a (species), to allow study, increase public knowledge of zoology.

Zoological specimens are extremely diverse. Examples are bird and mammal study skins, mounted specimens, skeletal material, casts, pinned insects, dried material, animals preserved in liquid preservatives, and microscope slides.

Natural history museums are repositories of zoological specimens

Birds (class: Aves)
Fossil birds
Human interaction

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