Museum birds tell their tale

What can you learn from a bird of paradise collected in the middle of the last century? Or a nest dating back to 1925? In fact many things, not only about the specimen itself but also about its environment.

New techniques, such as analysis of DNA preserved in specimens, can also provide information that would have been inconceivable at the time they were collected.

The five specimens below provide a glimpse into the wealth of ornithological information contained in museum collections.

A specimen of a Magnificent Bird-of-paradise, lying on its belly with museum labels attached to its beak.

An alien bird? Following the custom of his people, the indigenous hunter from New Guinea who collected this Magnificent Bird-of-paradise in the middle of the last century cut off the bird’s feet, giving the bird this strange appearance. Collection number: CMNAV 83536. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Magnificent Bird-of-paradise (Diphyllodes magnificus) is a bird of New Guinea. This specimen was collected in 1957 by George Holland (1911-1985), a Canadian entomologist who was studying parasites of birds in New Guinea. The specimen was given to him by an indigenous trapper for whom bird hunting was an ancestral practice.

According to their custom, indigenous people from the island always removed the feet of birds they capture. Labels are therefore attached to the head rather than the bird’s feet, as would normally be the case with museum specimens. As the first specimens brought to Europe in the 16th century were also without feet, naturalists at the time believed these birds didn’t have any. They were therefore named “birds of paradise”, under the assumption that they spent their entire life flying in the sky.

A relic from the past: this bird’s nest dating back to 1925 is made of mop strands and horsehair. It is covered in coal dust.

A relic from the past: this bird’s nest dating back to 1925 is made of mop strands and horsehair. It is covered in coal dust. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

This Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) nest was collected in Ottawa in early April 1926 by George R. White (1856-1927), a well-known naturalist from Ottawa’s Lowertown. As orioles do not come back from their wintering grounds until May, this nest dates back to the previous year.

Note that the nest is made exclusively of mop strands and a little horsehair, instead of plant fibres as is usually the case. What’s more, the mop strands are completely blackened by coal dust. This simple bird’s nest therefore reflects what Ottawa was like at the time: the omnipresence of coal, for heating, but also the locomotives of the railways that served downtown Ottawa, and the widespread presence of horses as a means of transportation.

Nine gull eggs, all with different colouration and markings.

Why are these eggs all so different? Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) eggs all come from the same colony. They were collected in 1994 at the Québec City harbour by officers of the Canadian Wildlife Service, as part of a program to control gull populations.

Eggs of birds that nest on the ground, such as gulls, generally have a colouring that serves as camouflage. Moreover, among species that live in colonies, where birds lay eggs very close to one another, eggs often differ quite a bit from one female to another. This certainly helps females identify their nests.

The differences between individuals, as demonstrated by these museum specimens, are an important facet of biodiversity.

A Wild Turkey specimen

Witness to a lost population: this specimen captured in 1879 belonged to the original population of Wild Turkeys in Canada. Collection number: CMNAV 6431. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

This Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) specimen was captured by a hunter in 1879 in Essex County (southernmost tip of Ontario). It was later acquired by Toronto ornithologist J. Henry Fleming (1872-1940) who donated it in 1913 to the Geological Survey of Canada Museum, the forerunner of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

This specimen belongs to the original population of Wild Turkeys in Canada, which were extirpated in 1907 due to uncontrolled hunting. The range of this original population did not extend further east than Toronto.

In 1984, Wild Turkeys from neighbouring U.S. states were reintroduced into Ontario by the Ministry of Natural Resources, first in southern Ontario, then gradually further and further north. Today, the species is widespread up to Algonquin Park and throughout Southern Québec.

Conditions have changed significantly since the days when this turkey was alive: hunting is now much more controlled and Wild Turkeys now frequent agricultural lands where corn residues provide a substantial source of food.

An old notebook with notes and a sketch of a pair of Whooping Cranes.

A museum preserves more than just specimens, as witnessed by these notes about the Whooping Crane dating back to 1894. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is a now an endangered species, but was once less rare.

The notes in the above photograph date back to 1894 and were made by the young Rudolph M. Anderson (1876-1961), then aged 18. He relates the nesting behaviour of the Whooping Crane in Madison, Iowa, where he was living at the time. Breeding birds disappeared from the United States in 1939 but have been recently reintroduced.

Anderson was the Head of the Biology Division of the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of Nature) from 1920 to 1946. He took many notes over the course of his career; they are now part of the Museum’s scientific archives. Like specimens, the Museum’s archival records reflect changes in the environment over the last century and a half.

Translated from French.

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