By Kristina Polk
Dusty skins and tired penmanship do not conjure particularly inviting images, though they are quite beautiful when given the chance. Cold, muffled steps move down corridors and through bright rooms filled with jars and boxes and cases. The belly of the museum is brimming with quiet fascination; a new discovery behind each door and wall.
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History hosted the Ohio Young Birders Club on a snowy late January morning, giving members an incredible look at the wonders of the collections housed past public entry. Led by the knowledgeable Andy Jones, Director of Science and Curator of Ornithology, the group was first shown the skin of a recently deceased Common Loon. Her left wing pinned separately from her cotton-stuffed body, the bird managed grace and mystery even in death. She was surrounded by the skins and wings of a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a chickadee. Andy explained the reasoning behind the relatively recent practice of separating the birds and wings: when the skin dries, it becomes stiff and immobile. A researcher would have no way of looking under the wing if the bird was preserved with its wings folded. In order to provide a more extensively useful specimen, one wing is removed and pinned separately.
Additionally, small tissue and organ samples are preserved for select birds. This loon was represented in one of the many freezers by tiny sections of her heart and muscle, potential resources for future ornithological breakthroughs. Skins, however, are the most common way of preserving birds and Andy showed off a female Ruddy Duck, a male Hooded Merganser, and an Eastern Screech Owl. Finally, a most unusual bird was presented: a "gynandromorph", or a half-male, half-female individual. True to its bi-gender designation down to the reproductive organs, this Northern Cardinal was strikingly bilateral in its appearance.
Next, Andy moved the group to a larger room, where boxes lay stacked, concealing endless elements of bird, reptile, and amphibian skeletons. Andy chose to exhibit a Sandhill Crane skeleton, paying special attention to the keel. Sandhill Cranes, he taught, have a special adaptation in their breastbone to project their unmistakable trumpeting song as far as possible. Their tracheas pass through the keel in an immaculate curve, causing the entire bone to reverberate with their song and add strength to the sound.
After the lesson on cranes, Andy led the birders to perhaps the most exciting portion of the museum: the vast collection of approximately 30,000 bird specimens from all corners of the globe. Upon the opening of one of the many white, uniform metal drawers, an explosion of life burst forth. Colourful and exotic birds of all shapes, sizes, and taxonomical placements met the eyes of the eager visitors, astounding in their diversity. A row of brilliantly orange and black Cocks-of-the-Rocks lay alongside charismatic manakins of all sorts, including Club-winged and Red-capped. Cotingas such as the striking blue Lovely Cotinga and his cryptic brown female counterpart were in the same drawer. A puzzling creature with a curiously set wattle was an intriguing sight: the White Bellbird. In order to preserve the vulnerable skin of the long wattle, a stick had been inserted and so the wattle dried in a stiff, upright position, rising from the face of the Bellbird like a fantastical unicorn horn.
Peering over the shoulders of the birders as they examined the beautiful birds were two of the rarest and most talked about of them all: the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Imperial Woodpecker. Giants among their relatives, these woodpeckers possessed stunning ivory bills and magnificent crests. The mere presence of their skins was enough to send ripples of exhilaration and wonderment through the group. Legendary in status, the Ivory-bill is central in an ongoing debate over its existence, while the extinction of the Imperial remains generally unchallenged. The uncertain fate of these remarkable birds degrades not their mystique, and perhaps only lends might to their charm.
Giant African Hornbills and breathtaking quetzals were displayed next, along with a variety of amazing hummingbird species. The Giant Hummingbird is the world’s largest, while the Swordbill is the only bird whose bill length is greater than the body length. A Chimney Swift was shown as well, its long, tapered wings crossed over its back, framing needle-sharp tail tips built for stability as it nests on vertical surfaces.
Parrots and parakeets followed, as well as an impressive Kakapo. A large, flightless, nocturnal and highly endangered parrot endemic to New Zealand, the Kakapo nests in indentations in the ground, which will be used by generations of birds to come. Andy taught the group the differences between parrots and parakeets: parrots have short, generally squared tails, while parakeets sport long, angled tails. Lastly, a Barn Owl was displayed, the soft edges of her flight feathers amazing in their adaption to silent flight.
It was then time for young birder Lukas Padegimas to give a short presentation in the entomology department. His enthusiasm for the creatures was palpable as he spoke. He shared stories of his Alaskan travels and the insects encountered and even the few he collected and brought back as specimens. These specimens now bear his name under their pins and are possible new species.
After Lukas’ talk, Andy returned to his daily work as curator and the birders headed to the café for lunch. They were free to explore the remaining halls of the museum and socialize. A chance to talk and spend time with fellow young birders is always welcomed among the teens and what better place to do so than among such a rich collection of artifacts and animals. All who visited had an outstanding time and learned so very much about some of the world’s most intriguing species.
Through the well-preserved array of bird skins, many of which have uncertain origins due to their age, the young birders and their adult companions had the chance to be educated in ways not possible without such preservation of specimens. Museum collections are truly a vital resource in the preservation of and education about our avian neighbors.
About the author: Kristina Polk is a 16 year old birder from North Ridgeville, Ohio. A lifelong nature lover, she began birding in 2010. She has come quite far in her birding abilities since then–her first 'mystery bird' was the common Grey Catbird! Ironically so, for the first banded bird she ever held was a Catbird. (Fun fact: Adorned with an "I brake for birds" plate border, her car, the color of a catbird, is named Kitty in honor of this awesome bird.) Banding is a skill she is slowly learning and she volunteers at the Navarre Marsh banding station at Ottawa NWR. Her other hobbies are photography, sketching, reading, and writing, through all of which she channels her intense love for birds. She takes near daily walks around her neighborhood in search for birds and the local deer, many of whom she has catalogued with photographs. She has been vegetarian for four years and vegan for one and a half, and passionate about the welfare of our planet and its inhabitants. Her favorite birds are the graceful Chimney Swift, the charismatic Blue Jay, the fiery Red-tailed Hawk, the patient Great Blue Heron, and all gulls. Her 'must see' birds are the Blue-crowned Motmot and Red-billed Tropicbird.