On the Other Side of Those Beautiful Old Doors

December 20, 2018

By Rebecca Essenpreis and Maiz Connolly

Photos by Maiz Connolly

Rebecca Essenpreis is a community scientist. She lives in Los Angeles and collects data for NHMLA scientists by observing wildlife in her neighborhood and uploading her observations to iNaturalist. She participates in SuperProject 3 and recently won a SuperProject prize -- a tour of one of our collections. Join Rebecca and her husband, Tom, as she tells us about her behind the scenes visit to NHMLA's Ornithology Department:

A week ahead of the tour, Allison Shultz, Curator of Ornithology at NHMLA, asked if there were any species I was particularly interested in. Overwhelmed with bird love, I didn’t know where to start, so I threw the question out to my friends on Facebook and also asked if they had any questions about birds for me to relay to an expert. I got lots of feedback from a really diverse set of friends: casual bird fans, veterinarians, a cruise ship employee who spends a lot of time in the tropics, and even some curious grade-school children. I ended up asking to see hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and birds of paradise. But during the tour I got to see and learn about many more unique birds in the collection.

The first big surprise of my tour was that not only did I get the tour from Allison Shultz, who studied avian population genetics and evolution at Harvard and specializes in bird coloration, but I got a bonus tour guide, Kimball Garrett, Ornithology Collections Manager at the Museum since 1982. Between the two of them, I felt like I got a VIP crash-course in ornithology and the operations of the Museum.

“Are there any birds that change color like chameleons?” (Asked by my 8.5 year old friend, Roman.)

Not exactly, but there are birds who hide and emphasize color patches like Birds of Paradise. Many also molt seasonally, changing their colors in ways that are helpful for camouflage or finding mates.

One of Rebecca's questions related to Allison Shultz’s research on feather structure and coloration. Here, Allison explains what causes some feathers to reflect or absorb light, giving them a shiny or velvety appearance.

Personally, my biggest questions for the tour were about operations more than specific species. I wanted to know how the Museum selects what to curate, how that has changed over time, and how the Museum decides which parts of the collection to publicly display. I also wanted to know what the Museum was actively researching and if the Ornithology department had its eyes on iNaturalist and the SuperProject for any upcoming avian research.

Much of the ornithology collection is stored in drawers within high capacity compactor shelves. Here Rebecca and Tom watch Kimball Garrett turn the hand crank in order to move the shelf and reveal another aisle of drawers.

The Museum’s collection has changed over time. They inherited private collections that had specific focuses. There was a period of time when collecting African animals was in vogue. Changing laws have affected what is collected, and now museums have relationships with zoos and similar institutions who will donate deceased specimen which would be illegal to obtain from the wild.

Kimball Garrett shows Tom and Rebecca one of the Museum’s oldest bird specimens, a now-extinct passenger pigeon that was collected in 1873.

I learned that the Museum is actively researching tanager coloration as well as the evolution of house finches. It is interesting to see the spread of birds introduced by the pet trade, like the scaly-breasted munia and the pin-tailed whydah (Vidua macroura), the latter of which is a brood-parasite (relying on other birds to raise their young), which can have significant effects on native birds.

As an average visitor to the Museum, it feels like you’ve seen the entire building if you’ve followed along on the map they give you when you enter. Now I know that there’s far more space devoted to collections not seen by the public, hiding just on the other side of all those beautiful old wooden doors.

Thank you Allison and Kimball for the wonderful tour, and thank you, Rebecca for sharing your story!

(Posted by: Maiz Connolly)

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