Our Collections Online: A Link to One Family’s History

What do a 1940s chicken farmer, Percy Taverner (the museum’s first ornithologist), a contemporary birder and the museum’s online collection database have in common? Believe it or not, they are all threads that weave together in the following story.

Four people bend over an open cabinet drawer, looking in.

Zoology Collection Manager Michel Gosselin shows part of the museum’s Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio) collection to Linton Macartney’s daughters Elizabeth Smith (left), Jane Burgess (right) and Margaret Joyce (not visible). Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

When the museum’s online collections database was launched in 2014, we knew it would be widely consulted by scientists, students and others. But it is open for anybody to poke around and make discoveries, and, in fact, recent explorations have revealed examples of how many different Canadians have been involved in building Canada’s national science collections.

Knowing that I work at the Canadian Museum of Nature, a birding buddy told me in casual conversation that her father had donated an owl to the museum when she was a young girl growing up on the family farm, in Ontario. Linton and Evelyn Ruth Macartney may not have been typical of other chicken farmers of their era. They both had university degrees and took advantage when opportunities to educate their children presented themselves. It was not uncommon, for example, for Linton to gather the kids around to watch him do a post-mortem dissection on a sheep to determine the cause of death.

A screen-shot of the web page.

The online collection record that started the story. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

When the museum’s online collection tool was launched, Jane Burgess (Linton’s daughter) went online to look for the record of her father’s donation. She and her siblings were tickled to find the record. However, there seemed to be an anomaly. The bird species recorded was Otus asio, the former scientific name for the Eastern Screech-Owl (now Megascops asio) and not the Snowy Owl that stuck out in their memories.

An article cut from a newspaper.

The newspaper clipping from the Ottawa Journal, January 28, 1947, that describes the incident. Image: © Public domain

A man spreads the wings of a dead bird.

Linton Macartney holds the “evil genius of the woods” (Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus) that was threatening his chickens. Image: Evelyn Macartney © Evelyn Macartney

This revelation sparked a family discussion and the siblings started digging through their photograph albums and family files. Eventually, some photographs and a yellowed newspaper article were located and more details emerged.

Indeed, in 1947 an owl had gotten into the chicken coop and was threatening to have a chicken feast. When Linton was in high school, he had won a copy of the 1934 book Birds of Canada by Percy A. Taverner and recalled the following passage:

The Great Horned Owl is the evil genius of the woods. Winding silently through the shadowy foliage, through the dark forest, […] it is monarch of all it surveys. In a natural state it fears no enemies save man, and all the lesser animals and birds cower at its soft, hushed flight.

Pages of an open book.

The passage about the Great Horned Owl from Birds of Canada by P.A. Taverner, 1934. (Bulletin No. 72, Biological Series, No. 19. National Museum of Canada, Ottawa). Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Given that rather ominous description, and given that the chickens were his livelihood, Linton felt he had no choice but to shoot the owl. Taverner was contacted and promised to come and look at the owl the next day.

But wait, you say. The bird in these photographs is a Great Horned Owl. The kids remembered a Snowy Owl. And the online record shows an Eastern Screech-Owl. So what is the real story?

This is where things get murky. The Great Horned Owl never made it into the museum’s collections. Taverner may indeed have come to the farm to identify it, but in 1947 he was long retired from the museum. We can only speculate. Perhaps the museum already had enough Great Horned Owl specimens from this region. Perhaps Taverner kept the specimen for his own purposes.

What about the Snowy Owl? Did the children remember a large owl in the winter and incorrectly extrapolate? The story was passed around by word of mouth and family folklore was born. There are no records in the online collections database for a Snowy Owl collected by Macartney. However, there was a Snowy Owl collected by M. Curtis in 1945 in the same geographical region. Murray Curtis was a local naturalist known to the family. Was that the Snowy Owl that the children remember?

A woman holds an owl specimen showing its collection label.

The Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio) donated by Linden Macartney. Collection specimen: CMNAV 39812. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

And what of the Eastern Screech-Owl? Well, we know for sure that Linton donated that specimen. And, during a recent visit to see the specimen, one of his daughters’ memory was jogged to remember the time that small owl made its way into the brood house. And given past events and contact with Taverner, no doubt the family understood the value of donating this specimen to the museum.

That appreciation for nature stuck with Jane, who is an avid birder and has sparked that interest in her grandchildren.

Several owl study skins in a drawer.

A drawer of screech-owls in the museum’s collections. Image: Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

The 10 million natural-history specimens that are preserved at the museum belong to all Canadians and form part of our heritage. But for one family, a small bird tucked away in a drawer represents a more personal history.

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