Take a look inside the cabinet of extinct and rare birds

By Molly Adams, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla ‘Launchpad’ Fellow”

Great auk, an extinct bird, preserved at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo: Molly Adams

In the mid 1800’s, the great auk, a large, flightless seabird, was hunted to extinction. Like many other species, these birds can now only be seen as specimens in ornithological collections around the world. In late February, I accompanied a group of Feminist Bird Club members to the American Museum of Natural History, where we were able to catch an incredible rare glimpse of some of these extinct birds during a special tour of the world’s largest collection of study skins. Study skins are deceased animals that have been preserved very simply so their physical features can be easily studied. Unlike taxidermy, where dead animals are made to look full of life, these scientific specimens very much look like what they are: dead birds.

Whitehead’s broadbills at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo: Molly Adams

We were invited by Paul Sweet, the museum’s ornithology collections manager, on a tour highlighting controversial, rare, and extinct specimens as part of a two-part monthly event for the Feminist Bird Club. First, the group joined Martha Harbison for a group-guided bird walk through some of Central Park’s prime habitat for winter migrants and residents. The group saw a total of around 29 living species, including several tufted titmouse, northern shovelers, and couple of cooper’s hawks.

After the morning’s walk, we met Paul outside the Hayden planetarium entrance. We walked up several flights of museum stairs, then to a private set of stairs, and then all crammed inside his personal office for an introduction before heading into the temperature controlled collection cabinet rooms. One of our first stops was the ‘Extinct and Rare Birds’ cabinet which had trays of ivory-billed woodpeckers, passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets and the great auk. Everyone had their phones out, trying their best to get photos of the skins of birds that can no longer be seen alive.

The Feminist Bird Club at the American Museum of Natural History with Paul Sweet. Photo: Molly Adams

Paul went on to reveal trays of vibrant pitas, toucanets, and shocking comparisons of the world’s largest owl compared to the world’s smallest owl, but one particular specimen grabbed ahold of my attention. The Bougainville moustached kingfisher, photographed for the first time in 2015 and previously thought to be extinct, was one of the birds sitting on a tray of mixed species in Paul’s office.

A tray of birds, featuring the Bougainville moustached kingfisher. Photo: Molly Adams

This individual was collected as a holotype, a specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based, which is typical of most known species in the world. A holotype is only collected when it will not damage the species population as a whole, and serves as an important tool that contributes to the preservation of its species. Despite the important contribution to science, there were many extreme, emotional reactions to the collection of this individual bird, some translating to death threats to the scientists involved.

When animal species are going extinct at a rate never before observed in the history of the world, it is important for me to think about ways to help morph extreme compassion for animal welfare into a desire to contribute to local and global conservation efforts. The scientific knowledge that arises from well-maintained ornithological collections is an important piece of the conservation mechanism that prevents holotypes like the moustached kingfisher from being moved from the ‘Rare’ cabinet to one labeled ‘Extinct.’

One Comment on “Take a look inside the cabinet of extinct and rare birds

  1. Photos, measurements,weight, a feather or blood sample for DNA, there’s no longer a need to take specimens of rare species unless their populations are know. Most British museums now follow those guidelines, Paul and AMNH should do the same though not sure from your description if the kingfisher holograph specimen is an old or more recent one.

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